By Ron Leir
If Kearny wants to hire new firefighters, it won’t be able to rely on outside resources to pay them.
Last month, the town learned that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) program had rejected its application for $1,094,262 to pay salaries and benefits for eight new firefighters for two years. (After the two years, the town would have had to bear the full cost.)
The letter of denial, from David J. Kaufman, Acting Assistant Administrator, Grants Program Directorate, informed the Kearny Fire Department that its two-part application – one of 1,551 received – “didn’t score well” in the first part (an “automated assessment of how well the application matched the program’s priorities”).
And, in the second part (a review by “fire service peers” of the application’s “clarity of the project description, demonstration of financial need, impact on daily operations and realization of cost benefit”), the Kearny document “lacked the level of detail needed to be considered for funding.”
But Kearny Fire Chief Steven Dyl said he found the feds’ explanation “as clear as mud. We explained in the [application] grant narrative the dire need [more firefighters]. We explained the desperate status of the town’s finances. I don’t know what else they wanted.”
The lack of specificity by the feds, Dyl added, would compound the difficulty of reapplying for SAFER funding because “you don’t know what they’re looking for.”
Asked what the prospects were of finding local cash for hirings, Dyl was non-committal. “We’re in the process of doing our  municipal budget requests now,” he said.
Mayor Alberto Santos said: “Our [Fire Department] staffing is as lean as it can be. We’re getting at the point where, with a bare minimum level in our Fire Department, we’ll have to use tax dollars to hire, particularly if we get additional retirements which we expect in the latter half of this year.”
The town’s application, which was submitted by the chief, said the town was “in desperate need of grant funds to replace firefighters lost through attrition. Since January of 2008, 19% of our department has retired, with those vacancies remaining unfilled.”
Now at a low point with 89 members staffing five companies and responding to more than 3,000 incidents annually, the application says the department is hard-pressed to adequately protect a town whose population swells to “an average of 100,000 people who live, work or travel through this community each day.”
Facilities such as the Transco natural gas pipelines, Kuehne Chemical Co. and various trucking terminals and warehouses that store “hazardous and volatile chemicals,” along with storage tanks, many “in a state of obsolescence and … ready to collapse… pose a constant threat for the community and surrounding areas.”
“It is believed that these infrastructure problems will eventually contribute to the death or injury of civilians and firefighters,” the application says. “Without this grant, we are afraid we will be unable to properly protect these areas of critical infrastructure.”
With the Kearny Fire Department hard-pressed to keep on top of the town’s fire protection needs, it has become even more difficult to respond to calls for help from surrounding communities, the application says, especially now when “mutual aid is requested from the Kearny Fire Department almost on a daily basis.”
If the town can see its way clear to beefing up its complement of firefighters, there is an existing state-certified appointment list which, Santos says, is good for another two years and, “after review of our current [hiring] list, all eight … new hires [would] be post-9/11 U.S. veterans,” according to the application.
Jeff Bruder, president of Local 218, Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association, which bargains for the department’s superior officers, said that the town “has to find another way to replace those individuals who’ve left. We’ve lost over 10 [FMBA] members in the last year and a half [via retirement] who haven’t been replaced.”
“Right now,” Bruder said, “there are nine members eligible to retire and, as of May 1, another 12 will be eligible to go.” By May 2014, nine more will be able to put in for retirement and during 2015, another eight will be eligible, he said.
If the town doesn’t begin replacing the members lost through attrition, “you’re going to see more and more [fire] companies close,” Bruder predicted. “We’ve already lost one truck company so we’re down to three engine companies and a single ladder [company].”