AC Fire Department seeks federal dollars to keep 50 firefighters

Hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. are reflected in the water in this Nov. 14, 2007 file photo.  (AP Photo/Mel Evans, file)

Hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. are reflected in the water in this Nov. 14, 2007 file photo. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, file)

Although it has hired almost 30 firefighters in the past year, the Atlantic City Fire Department is depending on a federal grant to keep those staff and other emergency responders on its payroll.

The department was in dire financial straits when it first received FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Firefighters, or SAFER, grant to rehire laid-off firefighters in 2010.

The Atlantic City Fire Department is now on firmer footing, Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said, but the force is still depending on the grant to come through.

“Nothing’s ever a definite,” Brooks said. “We feel that there’s a good chance it’s going to be renewed.”

Brooks added that he expects his force will be self-sufficient by the end of this upcoming grant period.

SAFER grants are doled out using a three-tiered system favoring fire departments that have already let go of employees.

Departments, such as Atlantic City’s, that need the funds to keep firefighters they have not yet cut, get second priority. The lowest weighting is awarded to departments hoping to hire new staff.

Luckily for Atlantic City, the first two levels are given nearly the same precedence.

“There really isn’t a big step between those two. It’s almost like a half step as far as the priority is concerned,” said Jerry Brant, a grant consultant to fire departments and former volunteer firefighter in rural west central Pennsylvania.

Even with the economy improving, competition for the grants should still be significant.

In 2010, FEMA awarded $420 million in SAFER grants, but the agency only has $321 million budgeted for this year.

Brooks said the $10 million grant would account for 40% of the department’s budget, paying 51 firefighters over the next two years.

Grant applications, which opened this week, are due at the end of August.

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