ATLANTIC CITY - The city Fire Department has been awarded a nearly $10 million federal grant that could return laid-off firefighters to their jobs - and fill several other vacancies.

The $9.7 million would pay for two years of salaries and benefits for the 30 firefighters laid off Sept. 30, as well as filling 21 positions lost to attrition.

Now, the city has to go through the process to accept the award.

Public Safety Director Christine Petersen said she expects the city will receive a packet sometime this week that will lay out what needs to be done.

"It's good news," she said. "We're looking forward to receiving the grant and to the return of our laid-off firefighters."

Steep public safety cuts last year cut 30 firefighters and a total of 60 policer officers.

The smaller Fire Department staff has caused the closing of two to three companies per shift, or four to five companies within a 24-hour period, Chief Dennis Brooks has said.

"It will tremendously help us with the manpower on duty and reduce the operating costs for the city," Brooks said Wednesday. "But, ultimately, the city is the one responsible for accepting the grant. It's the appointing authority. The ball's in their court."

The SAFER grant - Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response - is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security, and is meant to help paid and volunteer departments keep their staffs at the necessary level to meet nationally mandated response times.

"It's a great day," said Fire Union President Angelo DeMaio, who helped author the grant application. "We're just excited. Hopefully, everything pulls through and we get back to adequate staffing."

He said the money would help alleviate the burden on taxpayers - and the amount of overtime that has been necessary to meet safety standards.

Councilman George Tibbitt announced the grant publicly at Wednesday night's City Council meeting. He said there had been concern from residents of what would happen after two years.

"People want to know if there will be another round of layoffs then," he said.

But Tibbitt said the topic was discussed at last week's Public Safety Committee meeting, which he heads.

The retirement of 40 to 50 firefighters within the next two years is "very likely," he said.

The city already lost an additional 12 firefighters since applying for the grant, Brooks said.

Tibbitt also said that the new firefighters brought in would be told during their initial interview that the job is only guaranteed for two years, which they could use as a training ground.

"It's a great thing for the city of Atlantic City," he said, urging the administration to move quickly and get the grant before council for approval.

The SAFER grants are officially announced on Fridays. As of last week, 46 had been awarded for those who applied in 2010, including three departments from New Jersey. None of those is local.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security that funds the program, said Camden's department also received a $5 million grant this week.

"The cities of Atlantic City and Camden have been devastated by layoffs to their fire departments and this critical federal funding will put firefighters back on the job protecting our families and neighborhoods," Lautenberg said in a statement. "With communities across New Jersey struggling to keep their first-responders on the job, I will continue working in the Senate to ensure that federal funding for public safety in New Jersey is a priority."

Atlantic City's grant includes reinstating 11 firefighters to captain. Many have been acting in that capacity, Tibbitt noted.

The program pays only for those who ride on trucks and respond to incidents, in an effort to ensure National Fire Protection Association standards on response times are met.

City Solicitor G. Bruce Ward, reached Wednesday afternoon, said he had not heard that the grant award was official, but said it was "great, great news."

He said he believes when the grant comes to his office, he would then sit down with Brooks and hash out the details.

"We're hoping to get our guys back," Brooks said. "We want them to know we didn't forget about them."

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