The funds will help offset local contributions to the fire service while making necessary investments in its operations.
By Matt Skoufalos | November 20, 2023
An infusion of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant aid will help the Cherry Hill Fire Department expand its roster, and outfit firefighters with new training and equipment to help them do their jobs more safely in the field.
Thanks to $4.367 million in federal dollars from the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) and Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG), the department will retain eight new professional firefighter-EMTs, and support all its personnel with specialized training and technology.
Cherry Hill Fire Chief Wade Houlihan said that $2.6 million in SAFER funds will cover eight new firefighters’ salaries and benefits packages for three years, and the $1.7 in AFG dollars will cover necessary professional education and a command radio system upgrade.
“We have to continue to evolve with the town,” the chief said. “We’re building the correct staffing levels.”
Full staffing isn’t only critical to firefighter safety and the operational efficiency of the department, it also affects the township Insurance Services Office Fire Score, or ISO rating, which informs insurance premiums across the community.
In 2016, the Cherry Hill Fire Department earned an ISO-1 rating, the highest possible within the system. Five years later, however, it was reclassified to an ISO-2 — still more than respectable — largely as a result of its drop in staffing, Houlihan said.
“That was one of the key components that cost us that,” the chief said.
As the department works to regain its ISO-1, it’s also working to expand the fire academy program at its Marlkress Road headquarters, where the next generation of firefighters are trained.
There, future first responders train in field and classroom environments, learning to respond in scenarios from search and rescue to vehicle extraction and more.
“There’s no better way to support us than supplying our people with good, relevant training, and then staffing that training,” Houlihan said.
“With great people, we can do great things.”
Cherry Hill Firefighters Union President Jim Lyons said the federal dollars will help the township fire service approach pre-recession staffing levels.
The additional firefighters will bring the department roster back up to 63 members, which Lyons said is still short by about nine from optimal levels of four firefighters per apparatus per call.
Nonetheless, the three-year grant helps Cherry Hill taxpayers “take the escalator, not the elevator, up” as the department works to close that staffing shortfall without a sharp tax increase, he said.
“You can’t do more with less; you can only do less with less,” Lyons said. “This job is 100-percent manpower-dependent. Both residents and firefighters will be safer with more firefighters.”
Cherry Hill Battalion Fire Chief Brett DeLucca said the need to add more firefighters to the company not only helps meet residents’ expectations, but addresses the growing need for additional services as township infrastructure continues to swell.
“We’re running out of horizontal space in Cherry Hill, and we’re building up,” DeLucca said. “With that expansion, our service delivery has to match that volume and that intensity.
“The resident or visitor must have a reasonable expectation that they’re going to get a doctor, and athlete, and a tradesperson all in one when they call 9-1-1,” he said.
A final component of the grant funds will cover the purchase and installation of the APX Personnel Accountability Application, a computer system that will help incident commanders visualize which personnel are deployed at the scene of a response. Presently, when firefighters radio in, commanders rely on a spreadsheet to identify them by device number.
The new software — which will be deployed on the department’s primary command vehicle, with its safety officer, and in the chief’s office — features a heads-up display that identifies firefighters visually at the field headquarters.
“As soon as they turn their radio on, it says they’re here,” Cherry Hill Battalion Fire Chief Jason Houck said.
“Even if all I hear is ‘Mayday!’ the software will tell me whose radio that is.”
U.S. Congressman Donald Norcross (D, NJ-01) spoke about the efforts by his office in “bringing those federal dollars back” to New Jersey for local training and staffing needs.
“Through the pandemic and natural disasters, the one thing we understand is, you can’t do your job on Zoom,” Norcross said to the first responders. “Public safety is job one for government.”
Camden County Commissioner and Cherry Hill resident Melinda Kane described the grant funds as “critical to ensuring the health and welfare of my neighbors and community,” and, by extension, neighboring towns.
“As the largest of 36 municipalities within the county, Cherry Hill training and equipment is vital to supporting the needs of Camden County as a whole,” Kane said.
Matthew Caliente, President of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, the state union for firefighters, praised the Cherry Hill Fire Department not only for its work to supplement taxpayer dollars with federal grant funds, but also for doing the legwork to coordinate those efforts among officials at all levels of government.
“They’ve built relationships with state senators and congressmen; they’ve done a great job applying for these grants,” Caliente said.
“We can’t thank the congressman enough for clawing back some of the money we send to Washington for our firefighters,” he said. “We’re going to fight down in D.C. to make sure we get as much as we can for our state.”
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