ATLANTIC CITY — Leaky tanks and hoses. Ladder trucks without heat or air conditioning. Bald tires and worn brakes. Condemned storage buildings. Breathing apparatus approaching expiration dates.
The trucks, training facilities and equipment used by the city Fire Department are in need of replacement or upgrades, and local officials are concerned inaction could pose a serious safety risk to the firefighters and the general public.
Following a tour of three of the city’s fire stations last week, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said he expected to see some issues due to the fiscal affairs of the city. Mazzeo said he’s not “an alarmist,” but he was taken aback by the lack of capital investment in the Fire Department.
“When you cut capital, it has a bad effect on health and safety,” he said.
Mazzeo was joined on the tour of the firehouses by Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, a volunteer firefighter of 48 years in his hometown of Buena Vista Township. In a letter to the editor printed Monday, Armato said the Richland Volunteer Fire Company’s equipment is likely newer and in better shape than Atlantic City’s. Both state legislators described what they witnessed as “disturbing.”
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Armato wrote the safety of residents, visitors and businesses is “paramount.” He warned the price of not properly funding the department would not be monetary “but the loss of lives.”
The department has seven engines, two ladder trucks and one rescue vehicle currently in operation. At Station No. 2 on Indiana Avenue, the last new truck the station received was nearly 10 years ago. At Station No. 1, which serves the north end of the Boardwalk where two new casino-hotels are about to open, the leaking tanker is more than 20 years old.
Funding for equipment and infrastructure is not typically part of a municipal budget. The money to pay for items such as new vehicles, equipment and facility upgrades is most often obtained through municipal bonding or grants from the federal government.
A review of the city’s finances show Atlantic City has not issued a capital bond ordinance since 2013. Prior to that, the city last bonded for capital expenses in 2010.
In addition to faulty and outdated equipment, the Fire Department is dealing with layoffs ordered after the state assumed control of the city’s finances in 2016. A Superior Court judged ruled in October to allow a reduction of the number of citywide firefighters to a minimum of 180, although the state had sought to decrease the number to 145. Currently, the Fire Department staffs its six stations with 191 employees, 167 of them active firefighters and 10 of them on injury leave.
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John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the firefighters’ union, said morale of the rank-and-file members is waning under the pressure of poor working conditions and an increased workload. He said the department has been neglected for years, but the circumstances now could jeopardize safety.
“Our guys are beat up,” Varallo said. “Equipment problems are one thing, but we have a morale problem with all that’s being asked of them. They’re the most important thing.”
Mayor Frank Gilliam, in response to the state denying the Fire Department the opportunity to apply for a federal grant to hire more members, said the department has been “raked through the coals” by the state and hoped that going forward the firefighters will be treated with more “dignity and respect for the great job they do for our city.”