City Plays With Fire if it Closes 20 Companies

Chief Leader - May 24, 2011

by FLORA FAIR

He was elected Mayor, he installed himself as emperor, and now he thinks he's God.

That's how Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Al Hagan described Mayor Bloomberg in a May 19 press conference responding to the city's plan to close 20 fire companies beginning in July.

Mr. Hagan announced a campaign of fliers and posters aimed at getting 1 million residents to call the Mayor's Office and demand that all fire companies be saved--one of many efforts underway to keep them operating.

Council Short on Rescue Funds

The release earlier this month of the $65.7-billion Executive Budget set off a week of rallies and press conferences, in which unions and Council Members converged on perennially at-risk fire companies. It's a familiar dance between the Fire Department, the Mayor and the City Council. For the last three years, the Mayor's budget has called for the closing of fire companies. And in 2009 and 2010, the companies were saved by allocations from the City Council budget. But now Council Members say they can't take any more money from their own coffers to save the companies, and that the funding will have to come from the Mayor.

Rallies were held in all five boroughs, including one on the steps of City Hall May 16 shortly before a heated hearing of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee. FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano faced incensed Council Members, who berated not only the plans but his delay in sharing them.

In her opening remarks, Committee Chair Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens) urged the city to understand the gravity of the decision. "The point is," she said, "additional cuts and closing even one fire company will jeopardize lives, will result in increased property damage, and will negatively impact the tax revenue that the city budget relies on."

Strung Along on Company List

"There's a great deal of frustration being expressed by many, many City Council Members," said UFOA Treasurer and Legislative Chair Eddie Boles, who attended the hearing. "First, that they're closing 20 fire companies after [the City Council] saved them the last two years...and more importantly, they have to keep asking for the list of the 20 companies." This list must be provided to the City Council 45 days before any closings occur.

Council Members repeatedly asked FDNY officials why they hadn't received the list yet, since Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith already had it. Council Finance Chair Domenic M. Recchia (D-Brooklyn) then threatened to up the stakes if they didn't get it. "I am directing my attorney on my staff to do a [Freedom of Information Act] request today and have it hand-delivered to the Bloomberg administration," he said.

The FOIA never materialized, but a letter from Mr. Recchia, Ms. Crowley and Council Speaker Christine Quinn was sent to the Commissioner and Mr. Goldsmith later that day, calling the delay in sharing the list "unacceptable" and warning that if the city didn't supply it and an analysis of how the companies were chosen by the following day, "we will be forced to explore other options for obtaining it." The list was provided soon after.

City officials have said the targeted fire companies were chosen based on several factors, including how busy they were and their proximity to other companies. Mr. Cassano said "the only saving grace" was that those fire companies on the chopping block are in areas where the response time is better than the city average. But he warned that if fire companies were closed, response times "would certainly go up."

Call Numbers 'An Illusion'

Even the times are a point of contention for the unions and the Council, which questioned claims in earlier hearings that response times have improved under the Unified Call-Taking protocol, in which NYPD dispatchers handle calls for FDNY-related emergencies, rather than handing the call over to an FDNY emergency dispatcher, as was done in the past. Since time on the phone with an NYPD dispatcher is not counted toward FDNY response times, unions argue that shifting the call to them is artificially deflating those times. Mr. Hagan also called the times "an illusion" because they only count how long it takes for a single company to arrive on the scene, and not how long it takes to find the fire in a building and start putting water on it.

In its recently released Strategic Plan for 2011-2013, the FDNY said it wants to improve response times, in part, by completing "key technology projects," such as the overdue and over-budget Emergency Communications Transformation Project. According to the Independent Budget Office, ECTP and other 911 communications projects have cost the city $1.2 billion in capital funds between 2006 and 2010, with another $138 million committed to them for FY2012. It's these expenditures that have unions and the City Council fired up.

"Many people don't realize that this administration, Bloomberg, has invested millions of dollars to upgrade a 911 system that still doesn't work efficiently," Ms. Crowley said during a rally at the South Street firehouse, which includes the threatened Engine Co. 4. "The truth of the matter is, it doesn't matter how fancy our 911 system is if there's no firefighters in firehouses to respond in times of an emergency."

'CityTime or Firehouses?'

Mr. Hagan succinctly laid out the programs unions have labeled wasteful and/or corrupt this year, saying, "Do you want CityTime or firehouses? Do you want the automatic-vehicle locator system or do you want firehouses? Do you want UCT, or do you want firehouses?" He even asked the crowd if it wanted "another 100 yards of bike lane" or firehouses. Each time, the question was met with a rousing response of "Firehouses!"

"You're going to lose more revenue than the $40 million you're saving," said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy, referring to mayoral estimates that the closings would save an estimated $40-$55 million for FY 2012. "The smartest businessman in the world should know that." He continued, "The reality is, every single fire company in the City of New York saves the taxpayers money, above and beyond what it costs to operate."

Ms. Crowley expanded on that claim, citing a Columbia University study. "Each year, the city spends roughly $1.5 billion to operate the Fire Department," she said. "Studies have shown that the Fire Department saves over $3 billion in property. That's a 2-to-1 return on investment. You can't put a dollar value on lives, and that's not counting the cost to move businesses that have been displaced or people who don't have a home anymore." Mr. Cassidy mentioned a February fire that left 99 families homeless, saying that those residents had to be relocated at great cost to the city.

Ms. Crowley accused the administration of not having its financial priorities in order, saying, "The Mayor has already closed seven fire companies since 2003 and slashed the FDNY budget nine times in the last three years."

Invoke Terrorist Worries

Officials warned about the danger of closing an engine company near the World Trade Center site in a city that's still a major terrorist target. "This firehouse here, Engine 4, Ladder 15, has what we call this invaluable service that people might not know about," Councilwoman Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan) said. "They have this counterterrorism and decontamination unit that operates in Lower Manhattan. We're still the No. 1 target after 9/11 for terrorism. And this unit here, they are the experts." She also mentioned that the city expects millions of visitors to the 9/11 Memorial next year, and that the neighborhood population is steadily increasing--making the fire company more important than ever.

Union members also reminded the crowd that last year was the FDNY's busiest ever, with Firefighters responding to about 500,000 emergencies. Yet, there are better than 600 fewer Firefighters on the force today than there were on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, they said.

"If one fire company closes, we fail--one," Mr. Hagan said. "Because we're all interconnected."

It's unclear what will happen to the Firefighters who work at these fire companies, and what other staffing cuts might be needed to stay on-budget. According to the FDNY, it's already 270 Firefighters short, and with a court-imposed hiring freeze, staffing shortages can only get worse.

"They took the fifth Firefighter away in February--they've taken their pound of flesh," Lieutenant Boles said. "You closed the six companies in 2003, you closed the company in Governor's Island, you've taken the fifth Firefighter away--we're at the breaking point."