UFA Questions FDNY 'No-Siren' Policy For 'Back-Up' Queens Cos.

Chief Leader - October 12, 2010

by ARI PAUL

A Fire Department pilot program in Queens meant to reduce truck accidents for responding Firefighters and fire officers has unions and advocates worried that it might make matters worse.

No Sirens or Lights

Resulting from an officers' study at the Fire Officer Management Institute at Columbia University, the program mandates that the second and third companies to non-emergency calls— such as a fallen trees or gas fumes —obey traffic rules and don't use their sirens and lights. The threemonth trial run addresses the longstanding concern about accidents on the road. Last year there were nearly 700 involving responding FDNY units, according to the department.

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy is livid, saying that the program is bound to produce confusion about what is and is not an emergency and lead to more accidents.

City Council Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee Chair Elizabeth Crowley has vowed to hold a hearing on the program. "The Fire Department needs to come before the City Council to explain further how and when they intend to use this plan," she said.

In an interview Oct. 6, Mr. Cassidy called the plan "nonsense," adding that the department admitted that there would be confusion with companies coming into Queens from other boroughs, as they would still be using sirens and lights for all calls.

"Therefore, the likelihood of an accident at an intersection is increased because you think that they are responding under 10-20," he said, invoking the FDNY radio code for no lights and sirens.

The UFA leader believes a better approach would be to return to an old policy under which all units obey stop signs and red lights when responding to all calls, arguing that fire companies should not assume that every driver can hear sirens and will yield to trucks.

A Pretext for Downsizing?

He also addressed the conspiracy theory among some union members that this program would be used to justify operational downsizing.

"It's a real fear," Mr. Cassidy said. "I don't know if it's the department's intention to set the stage for closing companies by saying 'we're having less units respond,' but I'm sure that some people in City Hall who want to slash the Fire Department will turn around and use this program as a mechanism to say, 'We really can fight fires with less apparatus.' The truth of the matter is when your house is on fire, those units that they want to close are going to come into play."

He added, "I am concerned that this is all part and parcel of the city's plan to get what they've been trying to get for the last two years: to close 16 or 20 fire companies."

Chief FDNY spokesman Francis X. Gribbon dismissed these concerns, adding that the experimental policy stems from the fact that firefighting, as a profession, is changing. In the city, there are fewer fires and more nonemergency response calls. And in other cities, the line between medical responder and firefighter is dissolving.

Tailor Response to Risk

"We are going to adapt the response to match the risk," Mr. Gribbon said.

Both Mr. Cassidy and Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Alexander Hagan worried that the program might add to what they see as communication problems with the current dispatch system known as the Unified Call Taker system, in which companies are only given basic information and the address when they are initially sent out.

"The classic example is a tree fell on a car," Mr. Cassidy said. "Yeah, okay. That's a non-emergency. Of course, until someone gets there and finds out there's people in the car."

Mr. Gribbon countered that this scenario wasn't likely, saying, "They generally have a good idea of what they're going into. You don't confuse a fire with a gas leak or a tree down."

Captain Hagan, who was initially indifferent about the modified response program, said last week, "We might have some big trouble out in Queens."

Captain Sees the Bright Side

But one of his members in Brooklyn, Capt. John Calamari of Ladder Company 120, was unafraid of the policy possibly coming to his borough.

"We are doing an extraordinary amount of emergency runs," he said. "So if this allows us to be more available for fires and emergencies, I think it's a positive."

Mr. Gribbon said that the fire unions have always been concerned with reducing accidents, noting that Commissioner Salvatore Cassano had cited officer input from the FOMI study before implementing the pilot. He asserted that the UFA's opposition was off-base.

"They can't compete with Sal on this," he said.