Atlantic City Chief Scott Evans

“Our firefighters, who protect and serve every day, are broken, both mentally and physically,” Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans wrote the state earlier this year. “Firefighters are coming to work and getting the job done, but the question is: at what cost? The symptoms of distress and burnout are obvious.”

ATLANTIC CITY — State-imposed guidelines on staffing levels and scheduling are causing fire company shutdowns and creating a potential threat to public safety, according to department officials.

Chief Scott Evans filed a certified affidavit in Atlantic County Superior Court that details his concerns that the state-mandated changes to the firefighter schedule, as well as department-wide reductions in staff, salaries, benefits and compensation time, are “unsafe and unreasonable” and “will not permit ACFD to efficiently provide fire protection services to the City of Atlantic City.”

State Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said Evans’ concerns are being taken seriously and added, “There are differing opinions about what the conditions on the ground are, how they can best be resolved and what steps the Fire Department’s leadership can take to effectively manage staff and resources.”

Mayor Frank Gilliam did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In 2017, at the recommendation of former state designee Jeff Chiesa, the Atlantic City Fire Department went from a 42-hour schedule to a 56-hour schedule, which means firefighters are working 212 hours over the course of a 27-day cycle.

John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the impact of the schedule change is “definitely having an effect on the morale as well the general wear and tear on the members who are working 30 percent more.” He said the union is specifically taking issue with the fact the new scheduling is in violation of a collectively bargained contract and done without “any fire expertise.”

“If we’re not healthy, we can’t provide top-notch service,” he said. “That has a serious effect on public safety.”

Operating under the guidelines issued by the state, fire department management has had to periodically “brown out,” or temporarily close down select companies due to a lack of manpower as a result of the increased use of sick time and “Kelly time,” which are mandated days off to keep hours worked within normal levels of a pay period. The Fire Department shut down two companies just before Memorial Day due to a lack of manpower. Over a six-day span earlier this month, Engine Company 7 operating out of Station 1, which serves the community around the Northeast Inlet and includes the city’s two newest casinos, was “browned out” twice.

When operating at full capacity, the Fire Department has 10 companies — seven engine companies, two ladder companies and one rescue company — in six stations.

In a letter dated May 11 to state and city officials, Evans wrote, “Our firefighters, who protect and serve every day, are broken, both mentally and physically. Firefighters are coming to work and getting the job done, but the question is: at what cost? The symptoms of distress and burnout are obvious.”

In 2013, the Fire Department’s 272 firefighters used 662 hours of sick time. Last year, with 191 firefighters on active duty, the department recorded 874 hours of used sick time.

The union and the state are involved in civil litigation as a result of the changes in the department, which Ryan said constrained the state’s ability to “comment on matters of concern expressed by Chief Evans.”

“We have engaged our outside legal counsel on these issues, but we are also trying to find ways to speed up the process of finding solutions that mutually satisfy both parties to this negotiation,” she said. “As we endeavor to work this out, the public should rest assured that the Atlantic City Fire Department has enough firefighters to keep people safe in the event there is a fire.”

This story has been updated to clarify who ordered temporary shutdowns of select Atlantic City Fire Department companies.

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Contact: 609-272-7222 DDanzis@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDanzis

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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