Firefighters Lash Out at Commissioner Angering Bloomberg

NY Times - December 08, 2004

by MICHAEL WILSON

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg criticized a union's vote of no confidence in the fire commissioner yesterday, saying the firefighters should "look in the mirror" and stop drinking on the job, using drugs and "turning a firehouse into a brothel."

The mayor's comments followed a Uniformed Firefighters Association vote of no confidence yesterday in Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. The union primarily cited policies that it said were intended to decrease firefighters' response time, but also criticized the commissioner's zero-tolerance policy toward illegal drug use, saying in a statement that it was driving "underground" the emotional problems of many firefighters after Sept. 11.

This year, 45 firefighters have been arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated, the Fire Department said. Those arrests came after a highly publicized, alcohol-fueled brawl at a Staten Island firehouse last Dec. 31 that nearly killed a firefighter who was struck in the head with a chair. Commissioner Scoppetta has promised to crack down on firefighters abusing alcohol or drugs after their first offense, noting that in the past enforcement was lax.

The mayor's comments at a news conference focused on cases in which firefighters misbehaved, including an instance in August in which a woman said she had sexual encounters with several firefighters in a bunkroom of Engine Company 75 and Ladder Company 33 in University Heights in the Bronx.

"I think the Fire Department union should probably step back and look in the mirror," Mr. Bloomberg said. "The truth of the matter is Scoppetta is doing exactly what he should do."

"We will not tolerate turning a firehouse into a brothel," he added. "We're not going to tolerate firefighters drinking when they're on the job. We absolutely will not let anybody who's on drugs drive a fire engine."

The union president, Steve Cassidy, took offense at those remarks. "The mayor's comments tarnish the sacrifices of all firefighters, active and retired," he said in a statement. "They are untrue and do not reflect the high esteem the public holds for New York's Bravest. Shame on him."

The union attacked a recent departmental advisory that it says considers the arrival of two firefighters in one truck a response to a fire. "Commissioner Scoppetta has done nothing to ensure continued leadership in the Fire Department since taking its helm, but among his worst acts have been his continuing rejection of the wisdom of past F.D.N.Y. chiefs and sending fire companies out undermanned just to bolster his response time data," Mr. Cassidy said.

Commissioner Scoppetta said the union was spinning the language of the advisory. "We just say in the unlikely circumstance that you're in the firehouse, you're waiting for two more firefighters to make up a full complement, you get a call, you take the call," he said. "You go to the fire, and you will be assigned some task. You do not go into the fire."

The union, which has 8,800 members, also criticized last week's reduction in staffing on 49 of the city's 197 engine companies, from five firefighters and an officer to four. The commissioner responded that the union's contract calls for reducing the staffing when the number of firefighters on medical leave rises above 7.5 percent, which it has.


Mike McIntire contributed reporting for this article.