Layoff notices are expected to go out soon for 51 Atlantic City firefighters hired under a federal grant.
The two-year Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant was awarded in 2011 as a way to boost the number of personnel able to respond to fires, including returning 30 firefighters who had been laid off as part of major budget cuts at the end of 2010.
While the time span for the $9.7 million grant ran out this May, there was still $3.5 million unspent. The city was given permission to use that money until Nov. 4. They asked for an extension until Nov. 30, hoping to buy time until a new grant the city already applied for is approved. On Friday, that request was tentatively denied. That means the city is already within the 45 days required to notify personnel of potential layoffs.
“Therefore, we expect the city will immediately begin the process of generating layoff notices due to their claims they are unable to fund any of the 51 members’ salaries,” Fire Union Vice President Vincent Carleo wrote in a letter to Local 198’s members this week.
“It would be a layoff of 20 percent of our staff,” Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said of the reduction from 256 to 205. “That’s a devastating cut.”
The grant funds only salaries for personnel responding to fires, and is an acknowledgement that the city needs that number for proper response times. With 51 fewer firefighters, that would mean closing two to three of the 11 companies per shift — or as many as six companies in a 24-hour period, Brooks said.
That means it’s possible at least one of the city’s six fire stations could close per shift as well. Before the layoffs in 2010, when staffing was at 244, Station 1 was shuttered for a time.
“We need to keep the number at what it is,” Union President Chris Emmell said. “We have 48 blocks of Boardwalk. The population can go from 40,000 to 150,000.”
“Atlantic City can justify the need with just all the visitors we have coming in and all the special events we host,” Brooks said.
This year, the city hired 27 firefighters, including 14 after the grant time expired. That was a condition to keep using the money, or else be in violation of the grant, Emmell explained.
“It’s hard,” he said of the firefighters hired knowing they could likely be laid off. “You have guys that think they’re in a career.”
There is still a chance the extension could happen, pushing the date to Nov. 30. But that won’t be known until FEMA revisits the request Oct. 20, which would be after the 45-day notification requirement.
“I’m much more concerned about the new SAFER grant,” Public Safety Director Will Glass said.
The pending layoff notices could help that application.
The grant is administered by need, Deputy Fire Chief Vincent Granese previously explained. Fire departments with no risk of layoffs are in the bottom tier. Those with layoff notices out are in the middle group, with those who have firefighters laid off — as Atlantic City did when it won the grant in 2011 — at the top of the priority list.
But until that news comes through, November layoffs remain a possibility — and a liability.
“It’s definitely going to impact services,” Brooks said, adding that they would need to rely more on surrounding departments, including Brigantine, Ventnor and Pleasantville, which are relatively small.
“This has been a city used to giving mutual aid not getting it.” he said. “It’s going to have an impact on them as well.”
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