CAMDEN, NJ — The loss of a federal grant could translate into as many as 27 layoffs for the Camden Fire Department this summer, Local 788 union officials told TAPinto Camden.

The department was awarded the $5 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant through FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, in 2016. A year later, it enabled the department to hire firefighters for the first time in over a decade.

But at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, the funds will run out.

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“Normally people call for us to get the job done. Now we’re calling on you as our city to look at what we need,” Ali Cooper, Local 788 Firefighters Union President told council members during the city’s January meeting earlier this month.

Local 788 represents rank-and-file firefighters in the city. Members of Local 788, Local 2758, which also represents the 190 members of the fire department, Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper, and Camden Mayor Frank Moran are currently in negotiations to discuss the potential loss.

Cooper said the 27 job losses would all be firefighters - of which there are currently roughly 160. The loss equates to approximately $2.4 million. 

While Moran did not comment on the matter, Camden spokesman Vincent Basara said, “We’re working with everybody involved including the department and union officials.”

Cooper’s brother, Aaron Cooper, the secretary of Local 788, said that the union met with the mayor on Jan. 9 prior to the council meeting and will meet with him again Friday to continue discussions. 

“We want to emphasize that this is urgent,” said Ali Cooper. “It’s important for the residents of Camden to know the department will have all the manpower it needs for the entire year and beyond.”

A change in the language

While awarded in 2017, the department was able to apply for extensions to the grant — enabling it to last up to now. 

The SAFER program aims to increase the number of frontline firefighters of a department and thus make it easier to maintain 24-hour staffing. 

At the time of the grant's announcement, Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker and Congressman Donald Norcross boasted that the grant, “will ensure the City of Camden Fire Department is adequately staffed and ready to respond when an emergency strikes.”

Initially, the grant allowed for the retention of officers but a recent change in the language now only permits the hiring of new firefighters. A new application period for the grant opens in the spring, and union officials are hopeful the grant will revert to its original language then.

Ali Cooper said that the grant is meant to help a department hire firefighters while the city finds a way to mend the budget. However, over the years, he said, the department’s needs have gone by the wayside. 

Throughout January a flier circulated online highlighting nearly a decade of struggles faced by the fire department.

And while Cooper and Cooper assured the union was not behind its distribution, they confirmed the accuracy of many of the bulleted points therein.

Among them: the city has not addressed properly funding the fire department outside of grants and, that a major fire at one of Camden’s high rises on the waterfront would deplete existing forces causing a fire elsewhere to present a challenging situation.

“We feel like we’re always treated like the stepchild of the city,” Ali Cooper told council members on January 14. 

A little over a week and several meetings with city officials later, and Ali said he was trying to be optimistic: “We’ll know more after Friday, hopefully for the better.”