Say Storm Proved Point

Chief Leader - January 04, 2011

by FLORA FAIR

Fire Unions: High Activity Makes Service Cuts Nuts

A record-breaking year of activity for the Fire Department, capped by a disastrous snowstorm, has fire unions calling key decisions by the Bloomberg administration "civic insanity."

Record Workload

In a Dec. 29 press conference, officials from the Uniformed Firefighters and Uniformed Fire Officers associations cited the record workload for the FDNY, with more than 500,000 emergency responses in 2010. Besides being the greatest number of emergencies in the department's 145-year history, it makes the FDNY the busiest fire department in the country.

"The No. 1 problem for Firefighters was that cars were abandoned everywhere," UFA President Steve Cassidy said of the snowstorm whose effects were still being felt. "People are out of their homes because of fires that should have been put out in the first 20 minutes, but took hours because we couldn't get water on that fire quickly." He referred to one incident in Queens that left 66 families displaced by a fire that "under normal circumstances would have been dealt with in 20 or 30 minutes."

The blizzard left Firefighters with an increased volume of emergency

calls hindered by unplowed, obstructed streets and stuck ambulances that created a backlog of more than 1,300 calls for the FDNY. Some Firefighters were forced to stay at the scene of medical emergencies for hours, trying to keep victims stable until they could be taken to the hospital. In one instance, a mother lost her newborn baby because ambulances took nine hours to respond.

"That mother would have been in a hospital inside of 20 minutes," Mr. Cassidy said. "Three hours later she didn't have anyone there... These things should never happen and they are happening because our resources are deployed just too far and too thin."

Became Ambulance-Towers

They were also stretched thin with non-emergency work, according to union officials who say department apparatus was used to tow 100 ambulances out of the snow. In addition, unions say there's a hidden cost in property damage and stalled business when it takes longer to put out a fire. "Who absorbs that cost? You know who does-the City of New York," Mr. Cassidy said.

Despite all these difficulties, the crews kept working. As UFOA President Alexander Hagan put it, "The New York City Fire Department has never taken a snow day. Ever."

"You had fires over the last few days that normally would have not been spectacular-completely out-of-control fires," Mr. Cassidy said. "What this really tells the tale of is when you cut and slash resources, when you don't have enough resources to respond to these emergencies, be it a medical emergency or a fire, the results can be deadly."

Underlying anger about the administration's response to the storm are several issues that have the city and unions facing off, including Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to shut down 20 firehouses during the night shift. According to Fire Department officials, this is when 70 percent of fatal fires occur.

Service Bound to Suffer

"They can't close 20 fire companies for 15 hours every night and expect the same level of critical, essential services that the city's 8.5 million people expect and deserve," Mr. Hagan said. He and Mr. Cassidy testified at a City Council hearing on the closings, which Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said were necessary to cut $15 million from the agency's budget. The city had asked the FDNY to find ways to cut $60 million for 2011.

"We feel that any service that can have an impact on life-or-death situations should be fully funded and even the notion of a cutback to the Fire Department is a form of civic insanity," Mr. Hagan said.

They also object to the decision to let a contract lapse with the UFA that allows a fifth Firefighter at 60 engine companies around the city. In response to the storm, the department placed a fifth firefighter on all of its engine companies-a move that the unions say proves the importance of that position.

"The department decided, of their own volition, to staff every engine company, all 200, with five firefighters throughout this storm," Mr. Cassidy said. "And the reason is simple: They know that having a fifth Firefighter on an engine company allows those Firefighters, that unit, to get water on a fire quicker. If they pull up to a fire and they don't have a ladder company with them, that fifth Firefighter can be used to vent, enter and search

...I think they've proved our case."

'Puts Lives in Jeopardy'

Mr. Hagan agreed that the decision was counterintuitive to public safety. "The staffing level doesn't impact on my union but it impacts on my family, being residents of the city of New York," he said. "This is hard, physical, dangerous work. And will it always get done? It'll get done if you have one person. The problem is...it takes so much longer to get done that the fire spreads, lives are put in jeopardy."

Another key issue brought up during the storm was the 911 call-taking system. In a press conference last week, Mayor Bloomberg said that he directed Skip Funk, the new Director of Citywide Emergency Communications, to review the city's system.

"He's one of the country's leading experts in this field," the mayor said of Mr. Funk. "We will review the details of recent 911-call queuing... The NYPD and FDNY will work closely with Skip to identify any operational or technical shortfalls that they may find, including but not limited to Unified Call Taking."

Unions Give Thumbs Down

UCT has been a sore spot with unions that say it's a less efficient way to handle fire emergencies, essentially cutting the Fire Alarm Dispatchers out of the process.

"UCT is an absolute disaster," Mr. Cassidy said. "UCT is a system where they deliberately hide 20, 30, 40 seconds of a response. It's one of the statistics that they are using to say we can close fire companies because response times are at an all-time low. They're not an all-time low-they're not counting the first 30 seconds." Though he feels they aren't as well-trained as Fire Alarm Dispatchers, Mr. Cassidy said he doesn't blame the 911 call-takers for response problems during the storm, but rather administrative decisions and logistics.

"If this administration gets their way...what has happened over the last few days in terms of the kinds of services that have been provided throughout the five boroughs, that's what New Yorkers can expect," he said.