Bid to Revive Fire Patrol Faces Heated Opposition

Chief Leader - July 05, 2011

by FLORA FAIR

A bill before the State Assembly could revive a fire institution even older than the FDNY itself.

The city's Fire Patrol was established in 1839 to discover fires and protect property. By the time it was disbanded in 2006, such patrols were a relic in the U.S. Called the "cousins to the Fire Department," the patrol would respond to the scene of fires when called by the FDNY, defending against property damage and pumping water. The operation was funded by a 2-percent assessment on all insurance companies operating in the state because it ultimately saved policy-holders money.

A Legacy for His Son

Retired NYPD Police Officer Arnold Roma is trying to re-establish the patrol, with a board already in place and Federal and private grants in the works. But without legislative authorization, the patrol can't get off the ground. Mr. Roma's son, Keith Roma, was a Fire Patrolman who died while helping to evacuate the World Trade Center's North Tower on 9/11.

An authorization bill has already passed the Senate and is awaiting an Assembly vote. Mr. Roma had pushed for a similar bill in 2009, but it failed. Unlike the 2009 proposal, this bill contains no language about funding and would have no impact on taxpayers or insurance companies. What it would do is allow Fire Patrol members to enter fire lines and use warning devices on trucks that could be categorized as emergency vehicles.

The patrol is now incorporated as the New York Fire Patrol, Inc., with board members that include former State Superintendent of Insurance Gregory Serio and ex-city Emergency Management Commissioner Richard Sheirer.

Mr. Roma claims that they "want nothing to do with the insurance industry" this time around, and will instead rely on grant money and a streamlined operation. But he's concerned that strong lobbying from the New York Insurance Association will kill the bill.

Fears Tax's Revival

The NYIA confirmed its opposition, saying that the legislation as it's currently structured is a problem. "We had no objection when the Fire Patrol was initially started and filed a certificate of incorporation to be a 501(c)(3) corporation," Association Vice President Marc Craw said in a phone interview. "But we have an objection to them being included under state law." He said the association is worried that it will pave the way for a new mandate again taxing the roughly 600 insurance companies in New York to fund the patrol.

"Their concern is baseless, it's baseless," Mr. Roma said. "I even offered to sign an affidavit saying that we wouldn't seek a 2-percent assessment."

He said funding options include about $175,000 from a fire prevention grant, as well as more than $1 million from Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER). But he worries these funds have been put on hold pending the outcome of the bill, and the money is in jeopardy.

"We supported it, but the information I have is that unless they call back a Special Session it's not going to get done," said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy. The State Legislature, which adjourned late last month, may return later this summer to consider matters including a contract deal with the state's largest union.

Though the patrol had three firehouses and several trucks before it was disbanded, the new, smaller operation would include only a couple of trucks, fewer staff and one firehouse. Advocates are looking at the possibility of getting the former Ladder 114 building in Bay Ridge.

Frees Firefighters for Key Work

Mr. Roma said that one of the biggest benefits of the patrol is that it frees up Firefighters to put out blazes and focus on saving lives. "There was a lot of side jobs we did--pump water out of elevator shafts, reset fire alarm systems," he said.

But NYIA views this help as unnecessary. "We question the nature of these fire patrol entities in light of currently existing fire departments and districts in New York that seem to be already preserving life and property, as is stated in the bill would be a mission of the Fire Patrol," Mr. Craw said.

"It seems clear that the Fire Patrol saves the taxpayers of the City of New York money," Mr. Cassidy said. "They respond to emergencies, protect equipment, solve problems related to flooding in businesses, and they save the homeowners and the occupants of businesses money by minimizing damage... The fact that they were allowed to go out of business doesn't change what we believe is a winning formula."