Firefighters Union Chief Blames Mayor Bloomberg's FDNY Staffing Cuts for Escalation of Fatal Blaze

NY Daily News - February 12, 2011

by Jonathan Lemire, Oren Yaniv and John Lauinger

The Brooklyn apartment fire that killed an elderly woman Friday morning grew into an intense blaze because recent staffing cuts depleted the first wave of responding firefighters, a union chief charged.

UFA President Steve Cassidy placed the blame for the size of fire on "staff reductions mandated by the mayor."

The cuts meant that four less firefighters were available to man hose lines in the early minutes of the response - making it necessary for the FDNY to call in additional engine companies to serve as back-up, Cassidy said.

"Reduced staffing levels in engine companies threatens civilian and firefighter lives, while in the long run costing the city more than it saves," the union head said.

Nicholas, 70, died in a second-floor apartment when flames tore through a building in the Lenox Road Houses in Brownsville, police and FDNY officials said.

Officials confirmed Friday afternoon that four of the first five engine companies that arrived at the scene had lost a firefighter to staffing cuts at the beginning of the month.

But FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon shot down the union's claim that Nicholas' death was in any way linked to the cost-saving move.

"The changes in staffing levels had nothing to do with this unfortunate tragedy," he said. He noted that at least two engine companies were on scene within about five minutes - less than the department's average response time. "These guys did about as good of a job as could be done," Gribbon said.

The cuts - currently the subject of a legal appeal by the fire unions - removed a firefighter from 60 of the city's 194 engine companies.

Those companies were left with a total of four firefighters and an officer - the same number as the city's other 134 engine companies.

About 130 Firefighters responded to three-alarm blaze following a 911 call at 6 a.m.

The fire's intensity forced tenants to flee to the roof of the four-story building. Others residents had to be rescued from the fire escape, witnesses said.

Two women were hospitalized for treatment of smoke inhalation, and seven firefighters were injured - one who nearly fell through a crumbling floor.

Fire Marshals believe a space-heater may have caused the blaze, FDNY sources said.

One firefighter was inside the building when the floor below him began to give way, Gribbon said.

One of the firefighter's legs plunged into the hole, leaving him on the verge of falling through the splitting floor. A dreaded "mayday" call was placed, but the trapped firefighter's comrades pulled him to safety before he fell, Gribbon said.

All seven of the firefighters who were hurt suffered minor injuries, officials said. The two women who suffered smoke inhalation were in stable condition at Brookdale Hospital, police said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

The engine company cuts went into effect when a staffing agreement between the FDNY and the fire unions expired on Feb. 1.

The unions have filed a petition with the city's Office of Labor Relations, opposing the FDNY's decision not to renegotiate the agreement. A decision is expected soon, possibly as early as next week.

The cuts will save the city about $30 million in annual overtime that previously went toward paying for the extra firefighters. The FDNY, forced by City Hall to reduce spending, viewed the cuts as less damaging to essential services than other options that were on the chopping block, Gribbon said.

"Reducing the staffing on [all] the engines from five to four [firefighters] is preferable to closing firehouses," Gribbon said.