ATLANTIC CITY — The city’s Fire Department has been cleared to hire entry-level firefighters after dropping to an unsafe staffing level earlier this month.
Eleven firefighters retired April 1, leaving the department with 175 staff members, according to the union. A judge ruled in 2017 that a dip below 180 firefighters would be a threat to public safety.
City officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The state Department of Community Affairs, which has unilateral authority over personnel decisions in the city under the 2016 takeover law, has been working with the city to prepare an application and advertisements for entry-level firefighter positions after “more retirements than expected,” DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan wrote in an email Friday. Advertisements are scheduled to go out early next week, and the application will be available April 15.
They “anticipate being in a position to hire candidates in about two months from the application period start,” Ryan said. “We are very confident that the Fire Department is able to appropriately protect and serve the city at the current manpower level while we work to hire firefighters.”
In October 2017, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled the city would need to keep staffing to 180 firefighters . The department has lost more than 100 members since 2010.
The city submitted a SAFER, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month after approval from the DCA, Ryan said, which would enable the city to increase the number of firefighters.
The state prevented the department from applying for the grant last May, citing fiscal responsibility, since the grants only cover a percentage of the cost of new hires, 75 percent for two years and 35 percent 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.
John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the firefighters union, said the lack of staff has had a “serious negative impact” on the level of service the department is providing.
“However, we are working trying to address that immediately,” he said. “Is this something that can go on for a month or two without being addressed? Absolutely not.”
The union plans to meet with the state again April 17.
Varallo said the department is lacking in a few areas of the command structure — five of the firefighters who retired were captains — and one or two companies are closed on a regular basis, which negatively affects response times. He cited the January 2018 three-alarm blaze at Charles P. Jeffries Tower, during which firefighters had to rescue about 300 elderly and wheelchair-bound residents from the high-rise condo complex.
“At that point in time, we were probably close to 200 and we were completely maxed out. ... We couldn’t have handled anything else,” he said.
According to the DCA, the department reported 7,021 incidents, which included 4,477 EMS calls in 2017. Those numbers increased the following year to 8,133 incidents which included 4,872 EMS calls.
In addition to fires, the department responds to car accidents, water rescues, Hazmat emergencies, high-angle rescues, collapses, natural disasters, elevator entrapments and first aid calls around the clock.
“You just put all of this stuff together in a pot, and you just have a recipe for a department right now that’s a disaster,” Varallo said.