Fire Companies Saved, Unions Look to Keep Engine Staffing Intact

Chief Leader - June 29, 2010

by ARI PAUL

Fire union leaders breathed a sigh of relief after the City Council and the Bloomberg administration June 24 announced a budget agreement that averted the closing of 20 fire companies, but the Fire Department is still interested in reducing engine company staffing.

"I was pleased at the way the system worked," Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Alexander Hagan said after the budget agreement was announced. "It's good government."

UFA: What We Hoped For

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy said, "The results are what we were hoping for."

The fire unions had joined Council Members at rallies at 15 fire companies citywide during the budget negotiations, stressing that fire unit cuts would adversely affect the entire fire grid and lengthen response times in general, resulting in lost lives and property.

"The effect of the rallies was a way to galvanize public opinion and let the City Council people know that their people supported the firehouses," Mr. Hagan said. "And ultimately that allocation of resources is a political decision. The City Council Members are the closest to the people, and they expressed the will of the people."

The Mayor and Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano still want to reduce engine company staffing to four Firefighters— down from five in many companies—to achieve a more-than $35-million annual savings, and eliminate alarm boxes, which would achieve a $6-million savings. The UFA's contract guaranteeing five Firefighters on 60 units expires in January, but the department has not yet asked the UFA to open the agreement before then.

"They made it clear that they want us to give up the fifth Firefighter," Mr. Cassidy said, vowing that the agreement would stay in effect until the end of the year, and that if a consensus with the city could not be reached the case would go to arbitration.

The UFA leader has maintained that it takes a four-Firefighter engine unit significantly more time to establish a water line than those with the extra Firefighter.

Given that this was the second year in a row community members and union activists had to wage a public fight to keep fire companies open (16 units were on the chopping block last year), Mr. Hagan expressed concern about the fact that the FDNY doesn't have a guaranteed budget appropriation.

"When the City Council has to use discretionary money every year for essential services, it's not good. We are the linchpin of public safety here," he said. "Do children negotiate for their milk? No, the parents provide the milk."

Mr. Cassidy concurred, adding that the city should seek some sort of outside funding stream for the agency.

"I'd like to see the Bloomberg administration recognize that all the firehouses need to be kept open," he said.