Five-Member Engine Crews Delayed Over UFA Sick-Rate Rise

Chief Leader - February 13, 2018

by BOB HENNELLY

Nigro Invokes Contract Right For Second Time Since December; UFA Beefs

Five additional five-member engine crews who under the contract between the city and the Uniformed Firefighters Association were slated to go on line on Feb. 1 have been put on hold because the department’s absentee rate rose to 7.58 percent.

Under the terms of the 2015 pact, 20 five-member engine crews were supposed to be established over the life of the contract, as long as sick leave of union members did not exceed 7.5 percent.

About 590 Absentees

“We are not increasing engine-company staffing at this time due to firefighter medical leave rates that exceed the agreed-upon contractual rate of 7.5 percent,” an FDNY spokesperson said in a statement last week. Having 7.58 percent of the UFA rank and file out sick is equivalent to approximately 590 Firefighters.

At an unrelated press availability last week Fire Commissioner Daniel E. Nigro said he also held off on the five additional five-member crews “because the department is doing some research into what part of the excess above 7.5 percent are directly related to World Trade Center Illness.”

He continued, “The number [absentee rate] continues to increase. It is trending the wrong direction and we have not yet finished the analysis of the numbers.”

“The department did notify me it is still being reviewed and that they are looking at the number of our members who may be out related to a World Trade Center health issue,” UFA President Gerard Fitzgerald said in a phone interview. “We’ve had some injuries from some serious fires and numerous members are out with the flu.”

He maintained that 2017 was “a challenging year for New York City Firefighters” in terms of additional injuries on the job that he said was also seeing more stringent health monitoring by the department.

“We are talking about being .08 percent over the 7.5- percent cap, so we are talking dozens of Firefighters,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “These numbers did not go up overnight, so it’s not going down overnight.”

Lost But Then Restored

In early December, Commissioner Nigro removed the fifth Firefighter from 10 companies that had gained the additional staff under the contract because sick leave reached 7.53 percent.

The day after Christmas, however, he restored the fifth firefighter to those companies after a high-rise fire in Midtown left a 76-year old man dead. Close to 200 Firefighters responded to the two-alarm blaze at the 36- story Carnegie Mews on West 56th St.

The FDNY said that “extreme cold temperatures and potential for increased fire activity,” rather than the death, accounted for the reversal.

Last month the leaders of the UFA and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association called on the city to permanently install the five-Firefighter engine crews for all 182 engine companies.

Mr. Fitzgerald estimated the restoration would require the hiring of close to 200 additional Firefighters, adding that “we have independent studies that show that a hose line can be put into place nearly twice as fast with the fifth man. It is imperative, when seconds count, that they can get a hose line in place that much more quickly.”

Union’s Self-Inflicted Wound

And while structural fires are down, the union chief conceded, today’s building interiors and furnishings are not composed of yesteryear’s wood and fiber material but of petroleum-based plastics “that burn hotter and faster” while generating far-more toxic smoke.

Historically, having a fifth Firefighter on an engine had been the rule, not the exception. In 1982 140 engine companies had five members. But over the years, as FDNY staffing came under pressure due to the city’s fiscal condition and a disastrous gamble in arbitration by union delegates in rejecting a contract deal in 1989, five-Firefighter crews were eventually eliminated.