On Memorial Day weekend in 2018, the Atlantic City Fire Department “browned out” or closed at least two of its 10 companies.
“We were unbelievably busy that night with gunshot victims, medical accidents and a company broke down in the middle of the night,” said John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
This incident and a handful of others in 2018 were reported, but since then the department’s companies — units referred to as either engines or ladders that contain four to six firefighters each — have continued to face closures.
In 2018, the department recorded 105 days when companies were either fully closed or closed for more than about six hours.
On three of those days, two companies were closed, according to information The Press obtained through an Open Public Records Act Request.
The department responded to 288 fires and 5,331 EMS calls in 2018, according to information from the state Department of Community Affairs.
As of July 19, the department has already recorded 110 days when companies have closed and on 10 of those days, two companies have closed.
“We’re closing a company or two companies more often than we probably have ever since I’ve been on this job, 15 years,” Varallo said. “It’s definitely becoming normal.”
As state officials are in the process of hiring more firefighters, city officials stated that they are “very confident” the fire department as it stands is able to serve the city.
“On those occasions when the fire department has gone from 10 companies to nine or eight companies, fire response times have not been impacted and fire protection has remained adequate,” the city said in a statement. “The fire department has received no complaints from the public about its responsiveness to calls.”
After a class of firefighters retired in early April, the department now has a total of 173 firefighters to protect a city of 39,000 residents and thousands of summer visitors.
The companies that close the most frequently include Engine 7 or Engine 1, both located at Station One on Maryland Avenue.
Operating under a 24-hour shift schedule and guidelines issued by the state, fire department management has had to periodically close down select companies due to a lack of manpower from factors like injuries, vacation, sick time and “Kelly time,” which are mandated days off to keep hours worked within normal levels of a pay period, Varallo said.
Engine 4 and Engine 2 have also closed this year and operate out of stations on Indiana Avenue.
Engine 2 was closed for almost all of June, according to records, having only been open fully on two days out of the entire month.
Station 4 on California and Atlantic avenues has been closed since January due to structural issues, and those companies were relocated. Ladder 2 was moved to Station Six on Annapolis Avenue.
Engine Four, which has since been re-designated as Engine Two, moved to Station 3.
“They are some of the companies that are there within two to three minutes. Now you’re talking about another piece coming because those two are closed being maybe four minutes away,” Varallo said. “When you’re waiting an extra minute for a police and fire ambulance to show up it feels like 20 minutes. It’s a matter of life or death there.”