ATLANTIC CITY, NJ – An overwhelming majority of Atlantic City’s fire union members have voted “no confidence” in their two top commanders for a “lack of leadership and safety concerns before, during and after Hurricane Sandy.”
Firefighters were riding in the buckets of front-end loaders and forced to change shifts during the height of the storm, according to allegations by the union.
Questions were first raised at the union’s Nov. 8 meeting — the first after the Oct. 29 storm — when the members passed a motion for a no-confidence vote against Fire Chief Dennis Brooks and Deputy Chief Vincent Granese for their alleged “disregard for the safety of fire department personnel.”
Union President Christopher Emmell announced the decision at Wednesday’s City Council meeting in a prepared speech before the council. Emmell said the 247-member union has established a safety committee to address these issues.
“(The union) believes changes are needed to safely and adequately continue to serve the city’s residents and visitors,” Emmell said in his statement. “We look forward to working with both the city and fire administration to correct these issues.”
Union Vice President Vince Carleo told the council they had already spoken to Brooks and Granese and will work toward a resolution.
The union members declined to discuss details beyond the statement. But minutes from the Nov. 8 meeting reveal some of the problems.
A list of 18 questions from that meeting include, “Why were companies in line being taken off the street in order to serve food at (the) shelter?”
Firefighters also were told they would be punished for not being able to make it to work in the storm and that one was “told to use tampons to clean (the) Convention Center floor.”
“Who was looking out for the welfare (of the firefighters) during the storm?” the list asks. “What is the union doing to hold people accountable for mismanagement during the storm?”
Since that meeting, union leadership changed, with President Angelo DeMaio stepping down. Emmell, who had been vice president, is now leading the union.
DeMaio did not answer calls asking for comment.
Brooks said he does not know what all of the firefighters’ issues are but acknowledged some mistakes were made, which is normal for the handling of any large-scale event.
“Tough times call for tough decisions,” he said. “It was a rough situation. I’ll take appropriate action and deal with their concerns.”
Brooks declined to address some of the questions posed in the meeting but said the city did not have proper equipment to deal with the deep water during the storm so the department had to use front end loaders.
Brooks said he did not think speaking out at a council meeting was the appropriate venue for the firefighters. He said the council handles budgets and laws, and the union could have spoken at internal Public Safety meetings.
“I’ll continue to do the best job I can. It’s unfortunate but you have to move on,” Brooks said of the union vote. “They did what they did. I have to do what I have to do.”
Councilman George Tibbitt, who heads the council’s Public Safety Committee, told his fellow council members they should have full confidence with Brooks and Granese.
Tibbitt, who said he spent 72 hours with the public safety leaders following the storm, said many of the issues from the union members are “greatly over-exaggerated.”
“I told (the union members) if they bring it up in public I will stand up for the chief and deputy chief,” he said.
In other action Wednesday, City Council President Steven Moore said the cost of damage to the city’s properties from Sandy is about $23 million and the city is working with FEMA and its insurance providers to make sure the city will receive all the needed money.
Also, Michael Stinson, director of Revenue and Finance, said the city will close on its $93 million worth of tax appeal relief bonds on Friday.
The city made the move to bond the money due to loss of property taxes. The city will pay interest of 2.92 percent over 20 years, but Stinson said he could not give a number for how much the interest will cost the city.