Chief Leader - June 12, 2012
Closing firehouses won't just lead to bigger, more dangerous blazes, the fire officers union warned June 6--it could also lead to more deaths from heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks.Uniformed Fire Officers Association Treasurer Edward Boles told the City Council that heart-attack deaths have plummeted since the FDNY began responding to medical emergencies in 1993, and that shuttering 20 companies in Fiscal Year 2013 would threaten lives. Mayor Bloomberg eliminated funding for the firehouses in his executive budget, as he did in each of the previous three years, when the money was restored by the City Council in final budget negotiations.
His spokesman countered that closing six companies in 2003 had no ill effects.
Handled 200,000 Medical Calls
Firefighters responded to more than 200,000 medical emergencies last year, and arrived on scene in an average of four minutes and 20 seconds. Because the Emergency Medical Services Department is "severely understaffed" and lacks the ambulances it needs, its personnel arrived nearly four-and-a-half minutes slower on average, Mr. Boles said.
He noted that firefighters revived 344 patients last year who were not breathing and had no pulse, and that four-minute responses can save a life in such circumstances. The Fire Department has not announced which firehouses are slated to be closed this year, but Mr. Boles testified that the 15 companies targeted in Fiscal Year 2012 won 45 commendations for such life-saving interventions, known as pre-hospital saves.
"If those 15 companies were eliminated, the people in those mostly poor and working-class neighborhoods would have to wait a little longer for help to arrive, and the delay may well prove deadly," Mr. Boles said. "...The UFOA is talking about life and death. The Bloomberg administration is once again talking only about dollars and cents."
Mayoral spokesman Marc LaVorgna claimed in an e-mail that after six companies were closed in 2003, "the unions said there would be catastrophic impacts--there weren't. In fact, the opposite occurred, every category of safety IMPROVED after that. The FDNY already has proven it can continue to make the city safer while using less resources."
Cited Drop in Fire Deaths
At the Fire Department's Medal Day June 6, Mr. Bloomberg touted last year's record-low number of structural fires and fire deaths and praised the department's quick response times. In 2011, he and Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano used similar figures to argue that firehouses could be safely closed.
But Mr. Boles noted that for many years, fires have made up a small percentage of FDNY calls. In 2011, fires accounted for less than 10 percent of nearly half a million FDNY responses, with medical and other emergencies making up the vast majority.
"We're trying to expand the paradigm of the way people view the Fire Department in New York," he said in an interview. "If there's any kind of emergency, we respond. If there's a blizzard, we respond. When a plane landed in the Hudson River, we were the first to respond. The City Council's starting to get it, but I don't know if they're starting to get it yet on this side," he said, gesturing toward the Mayor's office.
A UFOA study found that of the 40 largest U.S. cities, New York had the fewest firehouses per capita, he added.
A Running Battle
In each of the last four years, the Mayor has cut funding for 15 to 20 fire companies from his budget, and the estimated cost to keep them open has roughly tripled during that period, to $59 million in Fiscal Year 2013. Mr. Boles said that's largely due to rising overtime costs. Because a Federal Judge threw out the last three Firefighter exams over a racial-discrimination-in-hiring lawsuit, the FDNY is understaffed, and loses more personnel through attrition each year. (New exams were held this spring and hiring is expected to begin in the next few months.)
The City Council has saved the fire companies each year by paying for them out of its discretionary budget, for which Mr. Boles especially credits Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Finance Chair Domenic M. Recchia and Fire and Criminal Justice Chair Elizabeth Crowley.