UFOA, Women Firefighters Hail Commissioner Cassano

Chief Leader - December 29, 2009

by ARI PAUL

Vulcans: Choice, Message Wrong

After watching Salvatore Cassano's appointment as Fire Commissioner Dec. 21, Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Alexander Hagan exited City Hall with a glow on his face, and spoke with the type of enthusiasm not often displayed by anyone, let alone a labor leader, regarding a boss.

What particularly impressed Mr. Hagan about the Chief of Department's promotion to top civilian commander was that he came up through the ranks from the entry level, in contrast to outgoing Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, who had never been a firefighter. There are only two other Commissioners with that distinction, Mayor Bloomberg said: Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty.

"Bloomberg has a knack for picking the most qualified people, as he picked Ray Kelly to lead the greatest police department," Mr. Hagan said. "Sal Cassano will be an extraordinary advocate for the department. When they're up there vying for resources, Chief Cassano, now Commissioner Cassano, will be a forceful spokesman."

Key to Post-9/11 Rebuilding

The reception of Mr. Cassano was generally warm among union leaders; even Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy, who had once called for Mr. Scoppetta's resignation, did not comment beyond a one-line statement of congratulations. As the Chief of Department and previously as Chief of Operations, Mr. Cassano was integral in rebuilding the officer corps after 343 FDNY members were killed—including the then-Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci—on 9/11. Mr. Bloomberg credited his leadership in lowering response times and fire fatalities while increasing training for new members.

"He's also committed to sharpening the medical skills of the department's approximately 3,000 emergency medical personnel, and also its more than 11,000 firefighters and fire officers," the Mayor said. "And that's in keeping with his vision of extending and amplifying the major increase in training that he has already overseen at the FDNY."

Oversaw Recruitment Push

Mr. Cassano will face several challenges at the helm of the department starting Jan. 1, one of which concerns diversity. Slightly more than 7 percent of the city's firefighters are black or Latino, and a Federal court ruled this past summer that two written exams for Firefighter given in 1999 and 2002 had unlawful disparate impact on minorities.

Mayor Bloomberg believed that Chief Cassano had already proved himself able to tackle the problem, as he oversaw an intensification of the FDNY's minority recruitment effort for the 2007 exam for Firefighter. The last class of Probationary Firefighters was the most diverse in the FDNY's history.

"I think you will see a lot more diversity," Mr. Bloomberg said.

Mr. Cassano added, "When we realized people didn't know all the benefits of the job and we did our recruitment campaign, we attracted a tremendous amount of minorities. And that's what we'll continue to do. But make no mistake about it. They'll all be qualified as Firefighters if they get through our program."

John Coombs, the president of the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, said that he was "cautiously optimistic" and open to working with Mr. Cassano in terms of promoting diversity in the department, but lamented that Mayor Bloomberg passed over two African-American candidates who were the other finalists for the job—one of them a woman —and were not only former ranking officials at the FDNY but had leadership experience elsewhere.

'Wrong Way to Go'

"The Mayor is clearly overlooking the fact that he is sending a clear message," Firefighter Coombs said in a phone interview. "They are not only just as qualified, they are better-qualified. Cassano isn't a bad choice, but if he was looking at the whole picture, he would see that this wasn't the right way to go."

Regina Wilson, president of the United Women Firefighters, disagreed, noting that while either of the minority candidates for the post would have taken a progressive approach on the diversity issue, Mr. Cassano was still the best-qualified overall.

Firefighter Wilson, who sings the National Anthem at many FDNY ceremonies, added that she had a friendly relationship with Chief Cassano and hoped that it would continue in his new role.

"I already have a good rapport with him," she said. "He's pretty much had an open-door policy."

Notes Past Citations for Bravery

Mr. Bloomberg hailed many of Chief Cassano's previous accomplishments as a firefighter, including the successful rescue of several fire building victims. He is also a Vietnam veteran.

The new Commissioner will have to make tough budget decisions in the department, and fire unions have raised fears that firehouse closings could be announced within the next six months.

"Chief Cassano will be called upon almost immediately to bring his knowledge to bear as the Fire Department faces extremely difficult budget reductions," City Council Fire and Criminal Justice Services Chair James Vacca said. "I will be insisting that he commit to keeping all firehouses and fire companies open and that he recognize the crucial role they play in keeping the public safe."

Mr. Hagan was optimistic that his union would be able to offer its input on operational decisions, adding a pat on the back for the departing Commissioner.

"We look forward to a continuation of the open lines of communication that we've had with the entire Bloomberg administration," he said.