EXCLUSIVE: Philly fire crews can assist Camden

February 18, 2011 5:40:52 AM PST
Action News has learned that fire officials in Philadelphia have reached an agreement to assist Camden in the event of a major catastrophe.

It's no secret that the recession has hit the region pretty hard, creating severe budget crunches for municipalities. Among other things, it has forced Mayor Michael Nutter's administration to shut down firehouses across the city through what are called rolling brown outs.

In Camden, the city had to lay off 67 firefighters last month.

But now, Action News has learned the Camden and Philadelphia Fire Departments have reached an agreement whereby Philadelphia would offer assistance should they be needed.

The head of the Phildelphia Firefighters Union, however, is not happy about this plan.

"If the governor of New Jersey wants to throw a city to the wolves, that's on him, but right now Philadelphia has its own problems," Union President Bill Gault.

In a memo obtained by Action News dated February 1st, Camden Chief Michael Harper is advising his department of the plan and they would be testing the radio system to make sure the two departments could communicate with each other.

"It's not really so much of an agreement as the fact that we sat down and took a proactive look at what would happen in Camden," Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers told Action News. "The agreement is about a catastrophic, some urgent, very urgent emergency situation where people are in peril."

But the firefighter's union argues the city can ill afford to send firefighters across the river to help Camden when it's having a difficult time meeting the needs of its own taxpayers.

"You can't have the citizens of Philadelphia paying for their fire services that the citizens of Camden aren't getting because the Governor cut them," Gault said.

The union contends Philadelphia has not hired any new firefighters in 3 years and has lost roughly 120 through attrition or retirement.

"We're stretched so thin right now, every day we run out of medic units," Gault said.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has concerns of her own and wonders why city council hadn't been told about the plan.

"This is the first I've heard about it," she said to Action News, adding, "This agreement, I don't know how legally they can do that. I know that we need our firefighters."

Commissioner Lloyd Ayers says he's confident the plan will not put lives at risk in Philadelphia. He adds that it would be senseless to watch Camden go through an ordeal and not lift a finger to help them.