Chief Leader - January 19, 2019by BOB HENNELLY
Well before the announcement that Long Island City would be home to Amazon’s multi-billion dollar second headquarters, the dramatic increase in development in that section of Queens was a concern to FDNY planners because of a marked spike in call volume and response times, a City Council panel learned Jan. 14.
“In Long Island City, we have seen an increase in the number of incidents and in response times to those incidents,” testified John Sudnik, the FDNY’s acting Chief of Department. “In particular, in Queens Community Board 1, calls for all incident types increased 19 percent between 2014 and 2018, and response times to all calls were up 9 percent.”
‘Highest Level of Need’
Mr. Sudnik told the Council panel that the “level of need for additional resources in Queens Community Board 1” was “among the highest level for any area in the city” and was “the highest level of need for any location in the borough of Queens.”
He continued, “Given what we know about the changing nature of the area, we were already in the process of considering whether additional resources were necessary due to the recent growth of the area when Amazon made their announcement.”
He was one of several witnesses who testified before the Council’s Fire and Emergency Services Committee, which is investigating the potential impact of the Amazon campus on city services. The initial phase of the firm’s HQ2 project is projected to add 25,000 employees to the neighborhood’s 115,000 daytime employees, according to the Long Island City Partnership, a pro-development group.
Long Island City-based fire units also are responsible for covering Roosevelt Island. “When there is an emergency incident on Roosevelt Island and an incident in Long Island City, companies have to respond from further away,” Mr. Sudnik explained.
Surge in Development
With 18,000 new residential units completed since 2006 and another 10,000 units expected to be on line by next year, Long Island City is considered one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. The 2003 budget decision by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to close the neighborhood’s Engine Co. 261 remains controversial, and the drumbeat favoring its reopening continued at the hearing.
“It is imperative that Engine 261 be reactivated in order to support the explosive growth in population and commercial activity in the community,” said Joe Borrelli, chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Committee.
“The fire on Queens Blvd. that destroyed several businesses was a pointed reminder,” said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. “Every day that we allow Engine Company 261 to remain closed remains another day that we welcome tragedy, because we know the need exists…The community has never forgotten the mistake made by the Bloomberg administration 15 years ago to close this and will never stop fighting until it reopens.”
The Fire Department representatives told the Council panel that it would cost an additional $4 million a year to operate Engine 261, and another $2 million in one-time construction costs to upgrade the firehouse’s bathrooms and living quarters.
Council Members repeatedly pressed Mr. Sudnik on whether the FDNY favored bringing Engine 261 back on line, but he didn’t answer them directly. “It’s my belief that those conversations are happening at this present time with [the Office of Management and Budget] and the Mayor’s Office regarding funding,” he said.
The leaders of the city’s fire and Emergency Medical Service unions used the hearing to make their case that Long Island City wasn’t the only area where rapid residential and commercial development had outpaced the emergency-service resources and infrastructure.
“Amazon coming in is a good thing for EMS because it gives a chance to talk with you about the insufficient response times that EMS is currently under” citywide, said Michael Greco, a vice-president for District Council 37’s Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians. “This is a city-wide problem, not just an Astoria [Queens] problem. I am here talking about what EMS needs. There are over 200 firehouses in New York City. We have only 30 EMS stations. That’s three-zero. We are a system in crisis.”
“Across the city, EMTs and Paramedics, who are currently facing a major personnel shortage, are doing more with fewer resources ever before imagined,” said Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507. “The FDNY/EMS has seen an increase in call volume every year for decades and the currently unit availability is at an all-time low. On a daily basis, the response matrix falls short 60 shifts per day, which equates to 420 shifts per week and 1,800 shifts per month.”
He said the city’s failure to expand emergency services had left “residents marginally protected” in “newly gentrified” areas like Williamsburg, Morrissiana and Hudson Yards with “overall response times…around the 12-minute mark” which he said harkened back to the 1970s.
'Closing 261 a Mistake'
Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, supported the re-opening of Long Island City’s Engine Company 261. “Closing Engine 261 was a mistake from the get-go,” he said. The area has been short fire protections since 2003, and in 2019 Long Island City is now the fastest-growing community in the nation, with thousands of new workers and residents coming to the area.”
But he said its situation was just another example of a citywide trend of a mismatch between the existing FDNY resources and a spike in development. “With rapid growth in development across the city, not just in Long Island City, but also in Hudson Yards, Harlem, Downtown Brooklyn, and even the South Bronx, we cannot let situations like these become the norm.”
Capt. George Farianacci, vice president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, told the Council panel that there would be consequences if the city could not keep pace with the 30-percent increase in EMS and fire calls it has logged in the last five years. “By not expanding the available resources to meet the growing needs of the people, as well as the growing population, we are failing to maintain the status quo of services in our great city,” he said.