ATLANTIC CITY — Steven Cordero, 30, of Atlantic City, wore a 40-pound vest as he dragged a fire hose through two traffic cones. He then unscrewed the metal cap of a hydrant, all part of his practice run-through of the Fire Department’s agility test course set up Monday inside the Convention Center.
After a class of firefighters retired in early April, the number of firefighters in the city has dropped below 180, which Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled in 2017 was the minimum needed to maintain safety in the city.
The Atlantic City Fire Department is in the process of hiring new firefighters to meet this number, but exactly how many and when they will start on the job is still being determined.
There are currently 173 firefighters in the city of about 39,000 year-round residents and thousands of visitors.
The city and state say they are committed to hiring enough firefighters to bring the total number to 185, said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which has unilateral authority over personnel decisions in the city under the 2016 takeover law.
But it could be more. Fire Chief Scott Evans said he has requested to hire about 25 new firefighters to bring the department’s total closer to 200 through a SAFER, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Having a rotation of firefighters is good for the department. It’s good for morale. It’s good to get new, young firefighters on the job. It means that the city will have more firefighters,” Evans said. “The fire protection in the city increases.”
City and state officials have not heard from FEMA as of Wednesday about the status of the grant application.
The state prevented the department from applying for the grant in May 2018, citing fiscal responsibility, since the grants cover only a percentage of the cost of new hires — 75% for two years and 35% in the third year — and the municipality is responsible for the remainder each year.
The grant also doesn’t cover health care and pension obligations.
Firefighter applications were open to New Jersey residents in early May. The documents stated that preference would be given first to those who live in the city, then the county and then the state.
“It’s important for the Atlantic City residents to have an opportunity to get good-paying jobs, good jobs with benefits,” Evans said.
There were 512 people who submitted their applications and $25 exam fee, 152 of which were city residents.
“City residents know this community better than anyone,” Evans said. “They understand the streets. They know directions. They know the buildings.”
While 343 applicants passed the written exam, only city residents were scheduled to take the physical agility test.
Residents were given sole access to the practice sessions held since July 24, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Cordero was one of the 113 city residents who passed the written exam and were scheduled to take the agility test Wednesday.
During his practice run Monday, he tried to shave off seconds on a tricky obstacle, the stairs. Carrying a 50-pound medical bag, he ran up and down the wooden bridge 12 times total.
“I’m just trying to dig deep,” he said, catching his breath. “That’s why you practice. You already know where everything is at. That’s when you really just start digging deep. It’s just mental.”
John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the firefighters union, said that although this helps address manpower problems — the department has lost more than 100 firefighters since 2010 — he still has concerns about how the test will be scored and, without civil service in the city, what appeals process there will be to ensure fair practices that protect applicants.
“I’m excited that there’s a possibility of new firefighters coming on the job, but I’m also worried about a spoils-type system that would show favoritism or nepotism,” Varallo said.
Evans said the physical agility test, which was conducted through a contract with the New Jersey Career Fire Chiefs Association, is mirrored to be as close to the Civil Service test as possible.
After the agility test, the department, city and state will assemble a panel that will include the Evans and the state fire marshal, among other city and state officials, to interview the candidates who pass.
“We are confident the hiring process is thorough and fair and look forward to having a new group of firefighters soon join the ranks of the Atlantic City Fire Department to serve city residents, businesses and visitors,” Ryan said.
Sitting legs spread on the floor of the convention center, Cordero said he knew he wanted to be a firefighter after a fire broke out years ago near where he lives on Providence Avenue.
While he couldn’t get a good look at the fire itself, he said he heard firefighters yelling commands to each other.
“Just hearing them talk and asking for one another and working together,” he said. “That’s when I knew that this could really be a job for me.”