Fire Unions, Council In Battle to Save 20 Cos

Chief Leader - February 05, 2013

by SARAH DORSEY

The fire unions last week braced themselves for yet another fight to save engine companies after Mayor Bloomberg for the fourth consecutive year proposed closing 20 of them as part of his executive budget.

In fiscal 2009, Mr. Bloomberg threatened to close 16 engine companies, and 20 in each of the next four years. Each time, the City Council funded them with its discretionary budget in the 11th hour, led in recent years by Speaker Christine Quinn and Fire and Criminal Justice Committee Chair Elizabeth Crowley.

‘Will Result in Deaths’

The Council has several months to save the companies. Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steven J. Cassidy, who led several rallies last year protesting the cuts, released a simple initial statement saying, “Closing any New York City fire companies will result in unnecessary fire deaths.”

“We are disappointed that the administration is riding their antagonism towards public safety to the bitter end,” said Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Alexander Hagan in a phone interview. “But we’re hopeful—very hopeful—that the City Council under the leadership of Christine Quinn will [rescind] the misguided and dangerous cuts.”

Ms. Quinn and Finance Chair Domenic Recchia Jr. each condemned the move Jan. 29.

“We should have learned from our experience with Sandy that we have no slack capacity in our emergency response capability,” said Mr. Recchia in a statement.

Ms. Crowley also cited the storm’s strain on first-responders. “If the Mayor had his way the last three years, there would have been fewer fire companies and firefighters ready to respond to Hurricane Sandy,” she said in a statement. “The Fire Department is our first line of defense in any emergency, and my colleagues in government and I have made it clear that we will not tolerate crippling cuts that will increase response time and put the city’s safety at risk.”

Fire Deaths Grow Scarce

Fire deaths have been on the decline for years. Mr. Bloomberg announced Jan. 2 that the city lost a record-low 58 civilians to fire last year, a 12-percent decline since 2011. Each decade has seen improvements, with fewer than 100 people lost in nine of the past 10 years. During the 1990s, an average of 140 New Yorkers died annually in fires, down from 236 in the 1980s.

But Mr. Cassidy has noted that his members now tackle more runs than ever before, with Firefighters spending almost half their time handling medical emergencies, often arriving before ambulances and saving lives. At a City Council hearing Jan. 16, officials of both fire unions said their resources were stretched thin during Hurricane Sandy and warned that closing companies could lead to disaster during future large-scale emergencies.

Last year, Mr. Bloomberg estimated that closing the companies would save $40 to $55 million. Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano has warned that if fire companies are closed, response times will go up, though in previous years, he said the only “saving grace” was that the city targeted companies in areas with better-than-average response times.