Scoppetta, Fire Unions Clash On Inspections; Dispute Statistics On Responses, Debate Specialized Unit

Chief Leader - December 18, 2007

by ARI PAUL

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta Dec. 12 defended his department's new building-inspection protocol against accusations by fire union leaders that it could increase emergency response times.

In response to the Deutsche Bank Building fire in August that killed two Firefighters, the department last month enacted a protocol under which all fire companies' obligation to inspect buildings in their administrative districts increased to three days per week from two. Both the Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association have advocated that the department should have a full-time uniformed force dedicated solely to building inspections.

'Have Time to Familiarize'

In his 2-1/2-hour testimony to the City Council's Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, Mr. Scoppetta argued that it was essential that firefighters be familiar with the buildings in their jurisdiction before responding to them.

"Because our members now have additional time to familiarize themselves with some of the city's most complex buildings, and to issue violations where problems exist, we are confident that this measure will enhance the safety of our firefighters as well as the public," he said.

Joined by Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano, the Commissioner roundly rejected the claim that if a fire company was inspecting the upper floors of a high-rise building it would take it longer to respond to an emergency call than from the firehouse. UFOA President John J. McDonnell had told reporters earlier that day that "the Fire Department radio is one long stream of radio warnings to the dispatcher of anticipated delays to fire and medical emergencies."

"It could actually be quicker," said Chief Cassano.

Cites Faster Responses

Mr. Scoppetta stated that the average response time for structural fires last month was four minutes, 24 seconds - seven seconds faster than the previous November and 12 seconds faster than in November of 2005. He said that response times for medical emergencies had also decreased and that civilian fatalities were at an all-time low.

"It's a specious argument," said Mr. Scoppetta of the notion that the plan would increase response times.

He said several times throughout the hearing that the UFOA's proposal to "hire a huge new cadre of officers to perform buildings inspections" would cost between $23 million and $26 million at a time when the FDNY needed to cut $68 million out of its budget, even though he added that cost was not the main inhibiting factor. His plan was superior to the unions' alternative, he said, because it acquainted fire companies with the buildings in their jurisdiction.

As a compromise solution, Committee Chairman Miguel Martinez asked if the department had ever considered having only some of the company members conduct inspections.

'Reluctant to Split 'em'

"We'd be reluctant to split the companies that way," Mr. Scoppetta replied.

Some of the other Council Members were skeptical of the Commissioner's rosy response-time statistics.

"It just seems illogical," said Eric N. Gioia of Queens.

He said that while citywide response times may have decreased, they have increased in his district, where a firehouse was closed in 2003, leading him to question the department's method of measuring responses.

Council Member Alan Gerson of lower Manhattan pressed Mr. Scoppetta to admit that unless a fire company was inspecting a building on a low floor and near where the fire or medical emergency was taking place, its response could be delayed. The Commissioner initially responded that the question had too many conditions to answer before stating, "It may take them longer."

UFA: Goosing Stats

In his testimony, UFA President Steve Cassidy questioned the department's statistics.

"Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when fire units are inspecting buildings, what are response times for that 30-hour period?" Mr. Cassidy asked. "It's obvious that response times during this period had to be impacted. And you know when they control the statistics, obviously they're going to come here and tell you what the numbers say."

Mssrs. Cassidy and McDonnell agreed with the Fire Commissioner that it was important for fire companies to be familiar with the buildings they respond to, but said that if a dedicated force was implemented it would communicate its findings to the local fire companies.

Mr. McDonnell told reporters in a press conference that morning that emergency calls were nearing an all-time high, while Mr. Scoppetta testified that structural fires, which require more time and manpower than medical emergencies, had gone down 50 percent since the 1970s. Mr. McDonnell said that his proposal for a special inspection unit, which he claimed the Commissioner dismissed after he informally presented it to him, had precedent.

Says Timing is Right

"This is not inventing the wheel one more time," Mr. McDonnell said. "Re-create the dedicated uniform building inspection teams that existed in prior years that were only to be abolished for budgetary reasons. We would like to see a local law enacted by the City Council and signed by the Mayor mandating that this unit, this building inspection unit, be a permanent fixture within the Fire Department. And it's a great time to do it, since the new building code and the new fire code are to be enacted in 2008."

In his testimony, he warned the committee of the department's new protocol.

"The UFOA is compiling worrisome reports about this dangerous problem, and the folder gets thicker every day," Mr. McDonnell said. "Right here at City Hall, another fire officer warns that on Monday mornings five of the eight fire companies located south of Canal St. are on building inspections at the same time."

Building Not Checked

He pointed out that this was particularly troubling since lower Manhattan is also home to the New York Stock Exchange, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Municipal Building, all of which are likely terrorist targets.

After Firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino were killed during the Deutsche Bank Building fire, it was revealed that the local fire company had not inspected the building in more than a year although it was mandated to do so every 15 days. The building, which was undergoing demolition at the time, was found to have a non-functioning standpipe, blocked stairways and other violations of building and fire codes.

"The results from this new system have been outstanding," Mr. Scoppetta said. "As of yesterday, Dec. 11, more than 97 percent of the FDNY inspections of these buildings were done within the mandated 15 days; compliance exceeded 99 percent within 20 days."