CAMDEN — Camden Fire Department members knew before the outbreak of COVID-19 that the loss of federal grant money might force layoffs.
But receiving layoff notices this weekend — as part of a state-mandated 45-day notice — still felt like “a slap in the face to any first responder” in the midst of a public health crisis, as one firefighter put it.
“It feels like we are expendable,” said Kevin Cooper, a city resident who’s been a firefighter for three years. He joined the department thinking it was a career opportunity in a city with few of them, one that promised good benefits, job security and opportunities for advancement.
Cooper is one of a cohort of firefighters hired in 2017 as part of a $2.4 million Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. But provisions of that grant have changed, and now the city and the department need to make up that shortfall.
Last month, Camden Mayor Frank Moran sent a letter to Deirdre Webster Cobb, chair and CEO of the Civil Service Commission, outlining his plan to make up for the shortfall, a plan that he at the time said would avert the need to lay off front-line firefighters like Cooper.City sends plan to state to avert most Camden fire department layoffs
The plan called for, among other things, reducing overtime; leaving six open positions dark; and reducing the number of battalion chiefs, captains, other top-tier officers and administrative personnel. In all, 12 positions would be eliminated, none, according to Moran, would be front-line firefighters.
But that was before South Jersey and much of the rest of the United States came to grips with the current public health crisis, one that has put first responders — including firefighters — on the front lines of the epidemic.
“Morale is ridiculously low right now,” said Ali Cooper (no relation to Kevin), president of CFD Local 788, which represents rank-and-file firefighters. “(Firefighters) have been saying, ‘We’re in the middle of all this and we come home to these letters?'”Get the Daily Briefing newsletter in your inbox.
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City administrators met with officials with Cooper’s local as well as CFD Local 2578, which represents officers in the department, earlier in the year to hammer out ways to make up for the shortfall while mitigating the negative impact on response times and firefighter and civilian safety — measures that union officials at the time did not fully support.
Since then, said Ali Cooper, “we haven’t had any more dialogue with the mayor,” something he said has firefighters concerned.City, unions working to close budget gap, avoid Camden firefighter layoffs
“We know there’ a pandemic going on right now but these guys and women are out there, and they’re worried about whether they’ll have health care if they get laid off,” he said.
“It would be nice of the mayor to reiterate that none of the front liners are going to be hit.”
“To borrow a phrase from football, I believe the city should call an audible to say this is not a good idea at this juncture,” said Sam Munoz with CFD Local 2578.
City spokesman Vince Basara noted the layoff notices are a state-mandated step that “is simply part of a process” that’s still in play.
“Their benefits remain in place, and (the city administration) is dealing with the issue at hand right now,” Basara said, referring to ongoing closures and states of emergency in the city and wider region due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Any layoffs that did take place within the 190-member department, Basara noted, would not occur until June 30.
Job security is not the only worry for Camden’s firefighters, though.
“We can be called to any emergency, we assist with EMS, car accidents, it’s always us,” noted Ali Cooper.
Still, firefighters are grappling with the same uncertainty as everyone else, only while trying to do jobs that are challenging at the best of times.
“Should we be masked? Should fire houses be fogged?” he wondered. “We know it’s not just us (dealing with this). But everyone else is talking about hiring and backfilling and we’re talking about laying people off.”
Firefighters, like many responders, worry about a lack of protective equipment, but he also worries that as the department moves firefighters from one company to another to accommodate for staffing shortages, the risk for them to contract novel coronavirus increases.
“The governor is trying. The chief is doing what he can,” he acknowledged. “We clean firehouses ourselves. But every run we have, we know we could have gone into a house where someone is sick or has it. Our people are subjected to it, we’re in a city that’s not like others.”
Tomas Flores, hired from the same class as Kevin Cooper in 2017, said he worries about the safety of his fellow firefighters, but more than that, the safety of his fellow city residents.
“Camden residents deserve a lot more than this,” he said. “I feel like this is a big disappointment; they push Camden as rising, but I think the fire department has been left behind.”
“With all the tax incentives, it’s frustrating the state EDA can approve $2 billion in tax incentives, while … we provide one of the best services. Call us, and in a minute and a half we have 23 people ready to respond.”
Like Kevin Cooper, he joined the department for security and to help his mother, a Nicaraguan immigrant, and his family.
“This is one of the last gems for Camden residents as a career,” he said. “Layoffs would make it extremely hard for us to move ahead. There would be a hiring freeze and we need to keep this department moving forward, and the way to do that is to hire more.”
Union officials last week sent a letter to Chief Michael Harper asking the city to address their concerns, not only about proper safety equipment and preventative measures, but also about fire company closures, concerns about the dormitory-style living quarters firefighters share, and the impact of potential layoffs.
“This is beyond insulting that in the midst of a worldwide epidemic in which our members have seen its fire administration approach the protective measures of its members haphazardly, our members would receive layoff notices,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Courier-Post.
For all their concerns about safety and job security, however, firefighters reiterated their commitments to the job and the community.
“It’s hard to sit down and think about (responding to pandemic) because everything happens so fast,” said Flores. “Yes, we wish we had more equipment. But for us, helping is like muscle memory. It’s not a selfish job. If it have to help someone, I think of saving them before me. I would give up my life over theirs 10 times out of 10.”
“It’s a very scary situation,” Kevin Cooper admitted. “But this is the job and we took that oath — this is what we swore to do. That’s the job.”