Thursday, May 14, 2009

Council Vows Battle Over FDNY Cuts

16 Fire Companies, 30 EMT Tours Would be Cut Under Mayor’s Proposal

By Conor Greene

Residents and elected officials are concerned that the Bloomberg administration’s plan to eliminate 16 fire companies will lead to increased response time and the loss of lives.

As part of his effort to balance the city’s budget and save $18 million, the mayor has proposed shutting four units, including Engine 271 on Himrod Street, starting July 1. The companies, which also include Ladder 53 in the Bronx, Engine 4 in Manhattan and Engine 161 on Staten Island, have been subject to nighttime closures since January.

In addition, 30 ambulance tours would be eliminated, and another 12 fire companies – which have yet to be identified – will close on January 1. Under the plan, Ladder Company 124 and Battalion 28, which are both also based out of the Himrod Street fire house, will continue to operate around the clock.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) joined many of her colleagues on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday to protest the mayor’s budget proposal. She is particularly concerned about the closing of Engine 271, which responds to about 2,500 calls each year in Queens and Brooklyn. It’s the first responder for much of Ridgewood and also assists at emergencies in Glendale and Maspeth.

“Response time is crucial because fire grows exponentially every minute,” said Crowley. “In an area lined with attached and semi-attached houses, one house burning can spread into an entire block burning. This is a safety issue where time lost equals lives lost.” She added that the problem is compounded by the recent closings of St. John’s Queens and Mary Immaculate hospitals. “A heart attack victim only has five minutes. Without 271, who will save them?”

The rally was organized by Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), who said he is ready to “declare war against the firehouse closings” and proposed budget. “The alarm must go out to residents that their neighborhood might be next,” he said, adding that the additional dozen closings on January 1 “is going to be a bad New Year’s gift” to city residents. “You’re talking about the loss of human life, and that’s not acceptable.”

Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, accused the city of cutting from the department’s budget since it doesn’t generate revenue. He also blasted the mayor for waiting until “after the election in November” to announce what other 12 units will close on January 1. “Does that sound like a coincidence?” he asked.

Cassidy and Vacca said the city has rejected other suggested budget cuts, including reducing administrative costs and eliminating borough commands. “If there have to be cuts, they should start with those not saving lives every day,” said Cassidy. “They’re playing Russian Roulette with the lives of New York City taxpayers.”

Vacca called the borough commanders a “bureaucratic layer” that should be cut. “We made suggestions that are real and can be implemented,” he said. Instead, the Bloomberg administration proposed reducing the amount of men in some companies that currently have five firefighters, something Vacca and Cassidy say will endanger lives. Of the department’s 198 engine companies, 64 have five men while 134 are operating with four men.

The community was informed of the imminent closing of Engine 271 through a letter sent last Friday to Crowley and Community Board 5. In it, Daniel Shacknai, a deputy fire commissioner and general counsel, explains that the decision to “permanently close” the engine company came after the FDNY examined “years’ worth of data and exhaustively analyzing all available relevant information.” The goal was to identify “those companies that could be closed with the least impact on public safety while retaining the maximum effectiveness of our finite resources.”

In making its assessments, the FDNY used three main criteria: the projected impact on first response times, the number of occupied structural fires at which the company performed work at and the projected impact on second response times. In making its determinations, officials looked at the company’s workload, the proximity of other units, the impact of the closing on surrounding units, street layout and geographic obstacles, impact of the closing on the community and the overall safety of the city and operational knowledge and experience of senior chiefs.

“While making these decisions has not been easy, we make them in the context of historically low civilian fire fatalities and the fastest citywide response times since 2002,” wrote Shacknai. “The FDNY will continue to provide the highest level of service to the communities we serve, as we have throughout our history.”

However, Crowley isn’t convinced that lives won’t be in danger as it takes longer for firefighters to reach the scene. She noted that on March 18 a fire near Wyckoff and Greene avenues left a dozen families homeless. With Engine 271 closed for the evening, it took four minutes for the fires engine company to arrive on scene – about double what it would have been before the nighttime closure. “It is outrageous that the FDNY jeopardizes the people’s safety due to their fiscal irresponsibility,” she said.

Following the rally, FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta defended the planned cuts during testimony before the City Council. “We have carefully picked the companies with an effort to reduce any impact on operations. You do the best you can with these things and I think in the past we have made wise decisions and I hope that we have made wise decisions here,” he said.

Councilmembers were critical that the remaining dozen companies to be cut have yet to be identified. For example, Engine 293 in Woodhaven is not among the four units to be eliminated in July, but there is concern in the neighborhood that the city will eventually try to close that unit, as it attempted to do in 2003.

“While the firehouses in my district are not one of the four slated to be closed [in July], they’re still at risk for closing in the near future,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). “People are very concerned that the Woodhaven firehouse in particular could end up on the chopping block... We should take the battle we went through six years ago as a lesson that nothing is indispensable if the city is going to bring the ax down and close firehouses.”

The city’s plan to shut Engine 293 resulted in huge backlash from the community, which eventually proved enough to prevent the closure. That didn’t mark the first time the area has been forced to lobby on behalf of its fire coverage. In 1994, Engine 294 in Richmond Hill reopened three years after Mayor David Dinkins ordered it shut as a result of budget cuts.

Area residents are now forced to wait to find out if any local companies are among the dozen yet-to-be-identified units to be eliminated in the New Year. When asked if the City Council is prepared to hold up the budget process to prevent the cuts, Crowley said she can’t see a scenario in which the Council adopts a budget as currently proposed.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley speaks out against FDNY cuts at a rally in front of City Hall on Tuesday. Looking on is Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), who organized the rally (right), and Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis). The Forum Newsgroup/photo by CONOR GREENE

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