CAMDEN, NJ — Camden’s fire department unions joined the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) on Monday in asking Congress to provide funds for local governments dealing with budget shortages due to COVID-19.

Fire union officials told TAPinto Camden this afternoon that at least seven fire fighters have tested positive for the virus in the city and more than 40 have been exposed.

Of those, approximately 10 are in isolation and the rest have been cleared to return. None of the individuals have required hospitalization. 

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“The COVID-19 response has depleted fire department budgets throughout the country. Nevertheless the federal government has - through FEMA or other avenues - offered reimbursements to municipalities,” Sam Munoz, president of Local #2578, said in a phone interview. “We’ve seen bailouts and funding for small businesses and other types of private organizations. Hopefully, this will filter down to public safety and fire departments.”

The department’s budget was dealt a blow even prior to the pandemic taking hold when it was forced to remove a dozen positions to cushion the loss of over $2 million in SAFER grant funds it longer qualifies for.

Meanwhile, at the start of the month Fire Chief Michael Harper sent out a memo to employees stating that Engine 6 — based out of North Camden — would be closed until further notice in order to be fiscally responsible.

The closure of Engine 6, among the first signs of budget shortfalls and home to sixteen department personnel, leaves parts of downtown and North Camden additionally vulnerable in the event of an emergency, local fire officials said. 

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed a historic $2 trillion stimulus bill meant to help the country’s workers, small businesses and companies hurting from an ailing economy. 

“That kind of stimulus, if they add it, would go a long way since it would save jobs without having to rely on the SAFER grant,” said Ali Cooper, president of Local #788.

The IAFF said in urging for the funds that the new stimulus bill would keep frontline workers on the job during the pandemic.

“As our country begins to open back up, public safety and public confidence will be shattered if local governments reduce the number of firefighters, paramedics and EMTS,” said IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger in a statement. “Failure to assist local governments will have a catastrophic effect on, not just safety, but the economy as a whole.”

Munoz said throughout the outbreak response the department has had to continue responding to weekly fires, alluding to an “all hands” fire at three vacant dwellings on Mechanic Street late at night Sunday.   

“Funding is critical, not only in dealing with this COVID-19 monster but fire emergencies don't stop and wait for pandemics to subside,” he said. 

Schaitberger noted that local and state fire departments also expect to see a spike in car accidents once residents take to the roads again. 

"Now is the time for the federal governments to come to the aid of state and local communities and ensure they can continue to mount a strong response against the pandemic, or the economy will take another hit with a loss of public confidence," Schaitberger said.

Since the end of March, when the Camden Fire Department reported its first three cases, Cooper said the amount of protective equipment available has improved in the city.

Moreover, additional foggers are on their way for Camden fire stations, he said. 

The devices allow for the sterilization of an entire firehouse.

“So for instance, if we have a positive case it’s a system the city has in place, [wherein] everyone has to leave the firehouse for at least two hours while the firehouse gets fogged with a specific kind of disinfectant,” Cooper said. “We’re taking all the necessary steps.”

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