CAMDEN, NJ — A plan submitted from the city to the state this week to “restructure” the Camden Fire Department would avoid laying off 27 firefighters — a fear linked to a grant loss and expressed by union officials since the start of the year.

Still, the proposed plan, which was worked over by Camden Mayor Frank Moran, Fire Chief Michael Harper, city administrators and unions Local 2578 and Local 788 during several meetings, would cut back on supervisor roles and eliminate several vacant firefighter positions. 

A letter from the city (available online) to Deirdre Webster Cobb, chair and CEO of the Civil Service Commission, addresses the department’s $2.4 million gap in the upcoming budget. The funds were part of a $5 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant awarded to Camden by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, in 2016. 

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The grant enabled the department to hire firefighters for the first time in over a decade in 2017. Camden fire officials said they were able to extend the money from the grant up to now through extensions it filed. 

However, language within the grant now no longer allows for the retention of officers, and only the hiring of new ones. At the end of the fiscal year on June 30, the funds will run out.

In a joint-statement released Wednesday night, Local 2578 and Local 788 commended the mayor for including the unions in the process. 

“Nevertheless, we cannot wholly support a plan that limits supervision by reducing command staff resources, eliminates the training division, hampers fire prevention, and could still lead to firefighter layoffs,” an excerpt from the statement reads.

Union officials also outlined ways a proper staff makes it possible for the Camden Fire Department to adhere to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.

Prior to Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Ali Cooper, President of Local 788 (which represents rank-and-file firefighters), told TAPinto Camden that, “the goal should be to grow the department not shrink it."

“The city of Camden is different. It’s more active. At any moment there could be a car accident, dwelling fire or other medical emergency and staffing is paramount,” he said.

Under the plan that was set to arrive in Trenton on Tuesday for approval, officials said they hope to save $2,439,000. 

To achieve its goal, the department 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. 

In all, 12 positions would be removed and fire personnel would go from 196 to 184.

The first meeting to discuss the loss of the SAFER grant was held on Jan. 7.

Sam Munoz, president of Camden Fire Officers Local 2578, hoped the restructuring would have included retirement incentives for the top fire officials. 

However, on Page 5 of the plan, it states that during the talks, “Moran indicated that any and all proposals to avoid [reduction in force] RIF for the Fire Department would receive serious consideration, but he was clear that any proposal or part thereof to avoid RIF that included an incentive program for retirement was simply not acceptable.”

As discussions continued, Local 2578 also shared in an online post that three structure fires were addressed in Camden in the first week of February. "Having all our units adequately staffed afforded us the opportunity to safely mitigate the emergency," part of the post reads.

Fire Chief Harper did not immediately respond for comment.

The department would also save $30,000 from fire inspections and $367,000 in other resources to meet its financial goal, according to Moran.

“Our priority remains public safety and the preservation of essential fire services,” said Moran. “I do not want to eliminate any front-line firefighter positions and I mean that. I’m happy that all parties could come together collectively to provide valuable input." 

Pending approval, the plan will go into effect in the new fiscal year starting July 1, 2020.  

“My administration worked tirelessly with Fire Chief Harper, the fire unions and the state to reach a solution,” Moran added. “If you call for service, there will be a timely response.”

During Tuesday’s council meeting Ali Cooper said while laudable it is important to be wary about celebrating the restructuring plan.

Aaron Cooper, Secretary of Local 788, said the department, “is one major structure fire on the waterfront” away from a challenging situation.  

Camden City Council President Curtis Jenkins President agreed with the sentiments that by no means is the plan a “cause for celebration” and agreed with the Coopers that the department needs to be mindful of not only surviving but “growing too.”

Despite the language change in the grant, Aaron Cooper hopes the city will apply for the SAFER grant regardless when a new application period opens in the spring. He said work is also ongoing at the state level to revert the language. 

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