PATERSON - The city's Fire Department is receiving a $6.4 million grant to hire 64 new firefighters - boosting its strength by almost 25 percent.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, announced the five-year grant Thursday, having secured it through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, program, which has a $50 million budget and is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The program funds fire departments to hire, recruit and retain firefighters.
It was the largest of the 100 grants awarded, accounting for nearly 13 percent of this year's SAFER program budget.
Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., Pascrell called the grant "an early Christmas present for Paterson."
He said cities "cannot afford right now" to keep up with the financial demands of fire protection in the current economic climate.
"If your budget is strapped, there's only a certain amount you can do with property taxes," he said. "You need to look to the federal government."
Pascrell has long advocated for legislation to help the country's 32,000 fire departments. In 1999, he authored the Fire Investment Response Enhancement Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000. The FIRE Act gives money to local fire departments to increase their ability to protect the health and safety of the public through equipment and technology upgrades.
In 2004, the Paterson Fire Department received $136,751 through the FIRE Act.
With 266 firefighters on hand already, Fire Chief Michael Postorino said Thursday that the additional 64 firefighters would help improve the city's response to fires and medical emergencies, as well as expand its ability to deal with special operations, such as hazardous materials spills and homeland security.
"At our current level, if we get any large-scale fire, we have to get outside municipalities to help," Postorino said. He said the extra manpower would help put more companies - usually five or six firefighters - on the streets.
Mayor Joey Torres said that the Fire Department currently doesn't have the manpower levels that a city of about 150,000 people requires, putting more stress on firefighters and equipment.
"With the additional recruits, not only will we be able to address the fires, we will be able to create another company that we could have specialize in hazmat and homeland security," Torres said.
Each new Paterson firefighter starts out with an annual salary of $19,000, which is increased to $23,000 after six months, according to Postorino. After going through nine tiers and after seven years, salaries top out at $65,000 a year, he said.
Postorino said the $6.4 million grant factors in salaries, pension and benefits for the additional firefighters.