Chief Leader - May 11, 2010by RICHARD STEIER
Mayor Bloomberg's decision to scale back potential fire company closings from as many as 62 to 20, even while uncertain how much aid to the city will be cut when a state budget is finalized, has created a scenario not unlike what occurred last year, when 16 companies were placed on the chopping block.
In that case, the City Council found enough money in final budget discussions to preserve all the vulnerable companies, in the process restoring nighttime service at the four where it had been cut.
UFA Not Celebrating Yet
Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy noted the similarities a few hours after the Mayor released his budget plan May 6, but was not ready to predict as good an outcome this time.
The huge cut that was outlined as a contingency in Mr. Bloomberg's January plan was predicated on the city losing $1.3 billion in state aid, as Governor Paterson had proposed. It is not clear how much the city still stands to lose in aid, and Mr. Bloomberg, asked whether he could detail "behind the scenes" discussions with Albany officials that led him to scale back the more-onerous aspects of his contingency plan, replied "no," then explained that if he did so, those conversations would no longer be "behind the scenes."
"I never believed the Mayor was serious about 62," Mr. Cassidy said, reflecting the general assumption that it was intended to rouse city legislators to pry loose more state aid to limit the pain to their constituents. And so the announcement that more than two-thirds of the closings had been scrapped did not soothe him.
"Twenty firehouses is completely and totally unacceptable," the UFA leader said. "Closing 20 companies will create gaps in the grid throughout the system and make it difficult to provide the services we do, whether it's [handling] building fires, medical emergencies or terrorism." He noted that firefighters were the first ones to respond when police officers spotted the suspicious-looking SUV illegally parked in Times Square May 1 that was packed with explosives.
"What happened on Broadway the other day is a reflection of just how prepared firefighters are and how quickly we can respond," Mr. Cassidy continued. "It's obvious there is a real fiscal problem in the city, and an even bigger one for the state." But cutting 20 fire companies, he said, was an unwise solution: "The impact would be devastating."
Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Alexander Hagan decried what he called "misguided, foolish cuts."
Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano also expressed worries-although in milder tones than the union leaders- as he exited City Hall following the Mayor's budget presentation. Asked if the scale-back in potential company closings amounted to dodging a bullet, he replied, "I don't think 20 fire companies is dodging any bullet. I'm very concerned. It will severely tax our resources. Every neighborhood in the city will be affected-it has a ripple effect. We may have to change the way we operate."
Mr. Cassidy noted that last year the company closings were averted before 12 of the targeted units were even identified. That is unlikely to be the case this year. Community boards must be notified 45 days in advance of any company being disbanded, and Mr. Cassano said the department's plan will be fleshed out by the notification date, May 17.
Mr. Bloomberg's budget also calls for elimination of the fifth Firefighter assigned to 60 engine companies at the end of this year. Currently, under the UFA contract those companies can only be reduced if the citywide absence rate among Firefighters exceeds a certain level, but that provision expires Jan. 1. Mr. Cassidy has cited past department studies indicating that working with just four Firefighters and a Lieutenant can delay getting a hose-line stretched and putting water on a blaze. Mr. Bloomberg noted, however, that in other cities as few as three firefighters, including officers, are used as full engine company crews.