Scoppetta, Warts and All

Chief Leader - October 13, 2009


In the eyes of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta's greatest sin is that he's not Ray Kelly.

Mr. Scoppetta's talents are in the areas of law-enforcement and administration. He had no background in firefighting prior to being tapped by Mayor Bloomberg nearly eight years ago to run the FDNY, and he has served his boss as a loyal soldier. Mr. Kelly, in contrast, is a career cop who knows the department and his troops to the marrow, and he commands the NYPD as a general would.

Thus it is hard to imagine Mr. Kelly ever abiding by a plan to close police stationhouses, as Mr. Scoppetta did a budget proposal to disband up to 16 fire companies, even if it was not surprising that ultimately the City Council found the money to avert those closings. The Fire Commissioner's decision not to publicly protest may have eternally damned him in the eyes of UFA President Steve Cassidy and his members.

Then again, Mr. Cassidy was assailing Mr. Scoppetta long before that happened. Unlike at the union representing fire officers, there is no known case of a UFA president being voted out of office because he was perceived as having too confrontational a relationship with a Fire Commissioner.

Mr. Scoppetta wasn't perfect in the job, which he will leave Dec. 31. Questions still persist about why, once he visited a firehouse in the shadow of the World Trade Center in the spring of 2007 after a pipe from the adjoining Deutsche Bank building fell and crashed through its roof, he didn't make sure that the demolition work at the bank was being regularly inspected. A more hands-on Commissioner certainly would have. His lack of assertiveness, and the failure of those lower down the chain of command to carry out those inspections, hit home with a tragic vengeance when a fire at the building led to the deaths of two firefighters.

But Mr. Scoppetta also deserves credit for presiding over the FDNY's rejuvenation after both its morale and its top command were devastated by the deadly toll of the heroic rescue efforts on 9/11.

Part of the task that fell to him was to replace the ranking uniformed personnel who had perished at the World Trade Center and provide strong leadership to an increasingly young firefighting force. A less-popular but equally necessary chore was to crack down on alcohol abuse when it became apparent that it was a serious problem in some pockets of the department. That was highlighted by an incident at a Staten Island firehouse in which, following some New Year's Eve drinking, one firefighter nearly killed another in a brawl and the commanding officer attempted to cover up what had occurred. Mr. Scoppetta made sure it was understood that a laissez faire attitude toward alcohol abuse, both on and off duty, was no longer going to be tolerated.

There were other tough issues that he was lesssuccessful in tackling. There has been little progress in better-integrating the EMS and firefighting forces after talk earlier in the decade of having them share quarters and moving toward a day when a single test would be held for a combined position. But it is indicative of the fraternal tensions that pervade the department that when it combined Medal Day ceremonies for the two groups, neither one of them was happy.

Mr. Scoppetta took office after one test for Firefighter that would eventually be ruled discriminatory had been given and shortly before a second one was held that was ultimately disallowed by a judge earlier this year. Prior to that court ruling, however, the department succeeded in vastly expanding its minority recruiting efforts, and they bore fruit in the results of a 2007 exam from which better than a third of the successful candidates who will ultimately be hired are expected to be minorities. There, too, he has endured withering criticism for his efforts, from Mr. Cassidy on one side and the Vulcan Society of black firefighters on the other.

It isn't easy being Fire Commissioner under any circumstance. Throw in a problematic city budget and the tense dynamic that has ensued when an agency bound by tradition and an accompanying belief in old-school civil service testing takes steps to bring more minorities into the department and the thanklessness quotient grows exponentially.

But as Mayor Bloomberg noted, Mr. Scoppetta will be leaving at a time when fire fatalities in the city are historically low, and when the department, despite its fiscal limitations, is providing more-extensive training than it has in decades while also expanding that instruction to prepare its workforce for future responses to another terrorist attack.

Those aren't small achievements to carry away as part of your legacy.