CAMDEN, NJ — Carlos Santiago, 37, has received two consequential letters during his career for the Camden Fire Department.
The first in 2017, his certification letter which meant he was on the precipice of donning the uniform as a Camden firefighter. A moment he describes as “exhilarating" and "exciting."
The second over the weekend, a memorandum from the city informing him that his department would be subject to layoffs. A moment he said, considering the COVID-19 pandemic, was “sickening.”
“The uncertainty is the worst thing," Santiago, who has three children, told TAPinto Camden. "Will I have a job to support my family six months from now? What will happen?”
The layoffs were not wholly unexpected, following a restructuring plan laid out by the city in partnership with fire union officials earlier this year.
However, Sam Munoz, president of Camden Fire Officers Local 2578, says the current health crisis exacerbates the situation.
"During the global pandemic, we see at the state level the governor taking measures to protect jobs and bring the public's level of anxiety down and here we see the city moving forward with this plan," Munoz said. "It is surprising and demoralizing. We continue to respond whenever the community needs us. But members are concerned for their longtime employment status...this only brings further stress."
President of Local 788, Ali Cooper, which represents rank-and-file firefighters in the city, said members of the department "were destroyed" after receiving the notices in the mail.
"The morale is extremely low...the lowest I’ve seen since I started in 1999,” said Cooper.
A 45-day layoff notice must be sent, per state law.
“At the present time, it is not possible to determine the exact effect that this layoff action will have on each employee,” reads an excerpt from the letter.
In February, Local 788, Local 2578, city administrators and Fire Chief Michael Harper worked out a plan after a month of deliberation to ultimately stave off front-line firefighter layoffs, according to the mayor.
The layoffs were necessary for helping to fill a $2.4 million budget gap left by the expiration of a Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant — first awarded in 2017 to help hire a new group of firefighters including Santiago.
As the language for the grant has changed and no longer allows for the retention of fire officers, a new plan was drawn up to save said jobs. However, the restructuring still means 12 positions would be removed and fire personnel would go from 196 to 184.
In summary, it would leave six currently vacant firefighter positions empty, cut a captain’s position, cut the number of battalion chiefs (9) by one, cut a fire inspector’s position, cut two deputy fire chiefs positions, cut two fire prevention specialist positions and reduce the overtime budget for the department to $1 million from $1.7 million.
“This is bad timing, with everything going on in the world the city should be helping the people who are a vital entity right now,” said Santiago, who noted that firefighters are also first responders and sometimes arrive on the scene prior to EMS.
Cooper added that, as they are wont to do, firefighters and other Camden fire department employees continue to do their part in helping the city through difficult times.
What is he telling his fellow fire officers?
“I'm telling them we’re still fighting, and we’re going to hope the mayor comes through. These guys need to have some kind of security,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic and to not do anything is the epitome of insensitivity.”
City officials said benefits for fire department employees would remain in place and any layoffs would not take place until June 30.
The letter also says the New Jersey Civil Service Commission will be, "responsible for determining seniority, lateral displacement, demotional, and/or special reemployment rights."
In another letter last week sent to Fire Chief Harper, union officials expressed concerns over proper safety equipment to deal with residents who may potentially have COVID-19.
Cases in the county surpassed 60 on Wednesday, with at least one death.
Santiago said officers who enter buildings do so only when necessary and with precaution.
But Munoz noted that the fire department was delayed in receiving safety equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer.
He also outlined a recent "scare" the department had when a firefighter — who was on vacation out of state — returned and was sent to another station since his unit was closed due to staffing restrictions.
Munoz said the firefighter was sent home halfway through his shift in East Camden.
"Thankfully he had no symptoms and was fine [ultimately]. But he could have infected several fire houses and many officers. This is what our leadership needs to think about," Munoz said.