Islander to Take FDNY Reins

SI Advance - December 22, 2009

by PETER N. SPENCER

Mayor names Chief Salvatore Cassano of Huguenot, who has held every rank in the department

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- An old hand will be the new head of the city Fire Department.

Staten Islander Salvatore Cassano, the FDNY's current chief of department, will become its 32nd commissioner.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the appointment of Cassano, a 64-year-old Huguenot resident, at a press conference in City Hall yesterday.

Cassano is the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the department and has been considered by many as the most capable and experienced replacement inside the department for outgoing commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. He has been cited five times for bravery during his 40-year career, each for saving people from burning buildings.

The mayor cited that firsthand firefighting experience as one of the reasons he chose Cassano over at least a dozen other candidates in a nationwide search.

"This is a guy who has a great breadth of respect from people in the department and from other agencies and he has shown that he knows what it's like to go into a burning building. Academically, that's easy to talk about it. It's very different when you have to do it," Bloomberg said.

Some insiders had speculated the mayor planned to go in a very different direction and name Mylan Denerstein, the FDNY's former head of legal affairs, as the first woman in the position. Such a move would have telegraphed drastic change in the culture of an agency that has come under fire for its pronounced lack of diversity. Ms. Denerstein, the executive deputy attorney general for social justice in the office of state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo is African-American and Jewish.

That possibility riled many members of the rank and file, who prefer to be led by someone who knows the rigors of the job.

Cassano certainly fills that bill. He has held every rank in the department since he joined it in 1969. He also played a significant role in repairing the shattered department after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

"I know what every rank has experienced. In difficult times, the mayor and I will discuss our budget, and I will tell him what I think and why I think it. When the mayor hears it from me, he'll know I was there, I've done it and I've done it for 40 years," Cassano said.

Once he is sworn in next month, Cassano will be the second Islander to head a major city agency, joining Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, an Annadale resident.

AT A CROSSROADS

Cassano will take over an agency that is at something of a crossroads. The FDNY faces a mandate to recruit more minority-group members after a federal judge ruled this summer the department discriminated against blacks and Latinos in hiring. The agency has come under fire for miscues with the new 911 dispatching system, part of a multibillion-dollar city communications overhaul begun as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. And the new commissioner will have to find a way to continue to drive down a historically low number of fire deaths and continue to speed up response times with an ever-tightening budget.

City Council Minority Leader James Oddo (R-Mid-Island), who counts Cassano as a personal friend, believes he is up to the task.

"To me his selection is critically important because now rank-and-file firefighters know the commissioner understands their job."

Rep. Michael McMahon said, "The mayor's choice of Staten Islander Sal Cassano is a brilliant one. I've had the pleasure of watching him at the side of Commissioner [Nicholas] Scoppetta, and he has been the firefighters' chief. I know as commissioner he will serve our city and the men and women of the Fire Department well."

Borough President James Molinaro continued the hosannas. "I commend Mayor Bloomberg for making an exceptional choice," Molinaro said. "Staten Islanders are proud to learn that one of their neighbors is appointed to this most important position in our city, and wish Chief Cassano all the best as he embarks on his this new role."

Not everyone appeared excited about Cassano's appointment, however. The city's firefighters union seemed underwhelmed. Several members, who refused to comment publicly, said they believed Cassano should have opposed Scoppetta when he proposed closing several fire companies, including Engine 161 in South Beach, earlier this year.

"We wish Chief Cassano luck and look forward to working with him on public and firefighter safety as he becomes the new FDNY commissioner," Uniformed Firefighter Association president Steve Cassidy said in a released statement.