By Conor Greene
Local officials, residents and the Uniformed Firefighters Association are ripping the city’s decision to close Engine Company 271 permanently on July 1 as a result of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget cuts.
The city announced last year that the company, which is located near the Ridgewood-Brooklyn border and helps serve parts of Queens, would be closed during overnight hours beginning January 17. It was then announced that Company 271 and three others slated for overnight closings would be eliminated entirely as part of FDNY budget cuts.
That news didn’t sit well with Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who rallied against the closings on the steps of City Hall last Friday before attending the City Council hearings on budget cuts affecting public safety.
“The Fire Department is an essential service for the safety of the people of New York,” she said. “Even when the city is in a budget crisis, safety is the last thing we should sacrifice to fix a budget… As a city we are one of the highest profile terrorist targets in the world, and we have no room to compromise our emergency services.”
At the budget hearing, Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) criticized FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta for not standing up to Mayor Bloomberg in opposition of the budget cuts. Avella, a mayoral candidate, told Scoppetta he should resign from his position rather than accept the closing of numerous firehouses around the city.
“It’s pretty disgraceful from my perspective that the fire commissioner, who is responsible to ensure fire safety throughout the entire city and protect his own firefighters, doesn’t stand up to what the mayor wants to do in terms of closing firehouses,” Avella later told The Forum. “He should say to the mayor that he can’t do those cuts, and if he’s forced to, that he will resign. But he laughs when I say that.”
In Avella’s view, not all city agencies are equal, meaning some, such as the fire department, should not be forced to make drastic cuts. While he blamed Scoppetta for not fighting the cuts, he said the blame ultimately falls with the mayor. “It has a direct impact on people’s lives and could cost lives, and you have a fire commissioner who is a total bureaucrat. Obviously the mayor is to blame to begin with for not realizing that the fire department shouldn’t be cut.”
In response to Avella’s criticism, Scoppetta questioned why Avella himself didn’t resign after he voted for a budget that included firehouse closings. “When you run into difficult times, when you are dealing with adversity, the response should not be, ‘I’m going to run away from this.’ The response should be “Let’s do the best we can, let’s see if we can make these cuts if we have to. And there is no question we have to given the deficit and the need to balance the budget,” said Scoppetta, according to a report in the Daily News.
During the hearing, Scoppetta said that the department’s budget is earmarked for counterterrorism initiatives, training services and new equipment to enhance emergency medical response. Crowley questioned his priorities, in light of the fact that firehouses are closing under the current budget.
“How can you talk about using the budget to enhance the emergency medical response through training and counterterrorism initiatives when the reality is you are closing firehouses and cutting out firefighters?” asked Crowley. “Doesn’t closing firehouses reduce the response time and put people at greater risk? There seems to be a case of mistaken priorities.”
According to the Uniformed Firefighters Association, just the nighttime closing of Engine Company 271 has resulted in the loss of several homes. In the early morning of March 18, with the company shut for the night, a three-alarm fire destroyed three homes and several neighborhood stores located near the Ridgewood Senior Citizen Center. The properties sustained severe damage, displacing several families and storeowners. If it hadn’t been closed, Engine 271 at 392 Himrod Street – about three blocks from the fire – would have been the first on scene.
The scene was nearly repeated this past Tuesday morning, when a fire broke out at 376Palmetto Street in Bushwick. Because there was additional manpower available, Engine Company 271 happened to be open and staffed that evening, according to Tom Butler of the UFA. Residents were blocked from the building’s fire escapes because of heavy smoke and flames, so the first firefighters on scene were forced to rip child-proof window guards before rescuing the trapped family.
“This fire could have easily resulted in numerous fatalities,” said Steve Cassidy, president of the UFA. “Today’s fire was the second significant one in Engine 271’s coverage area in less than a week. It is unsafe for the bean counters at City Hall to be playing God with people’s lives and safety.”
The blaze left residents shaken and grateful for the quick response from Engine 271. “You could feel the heat when it started,” said Chetkiela Jenkins. “You could hear the windows breaking and everything.”
“I commend the firemen,” said Elaine Hamilton. “We just kept saying to ourselves, we didn’t know how they kept going in there. And they were on the roof and I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it.”
According to the UFA, the city has identified four firehouses to close and will identify another dozen it will shut in the next few months. Community Board 5 members voted against the nighttime closing in December, and District Manager Gary Giordano said on Tuesday that he is concerned about the pending closing, in part due to the company’s proximity to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. He also questioned the city’s assertion that the response time to emergencies would only increase by 20 seconds following the closing.
“I have a hard time believing the difference is only going to be 20 seconds, at least without endangering lives on the streets,” he said. “But these are very difficult budget times, and when you are talking about [closing] fire companies, you are desperate to close the gap. Usually, that would seem to be one of the last things you want to cut.”