FDNY Looks To Put Out Fires in Considering Scopetta Successor

City Hall News - October 29, 2009

by Chris Bragg

FDNY Looks To Put Out Fires In Considering Scopetta Successor Hopes for new commissioner to come from within ranks, solve lonstanding issues At a Council hearing last March, Tony Avella offered Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta a challenge.

With the Bloomberg administration planning to close 16 ladder and engine companies due to budget shortfalls, Avella prodded the 76-year-old commissioner to tender his resignation as a show of solidarity with his men.

"Please," Scoppetta responded. "When you run into difficult times... the response should not be, 'I'm going to run away from this.' The response should be, 'Let's do the best we can, let's see if we can make these cuts if we have to.'" With Scoppetta now departing the administration in December to pursue teaching opportunities, critics say that exchange was typical of the commissioner's attitude during an eightyear tenure. They say the commissioner was more sympathetic to bureaucrats than firefighters, and created an often belligerent relationship with the firefighters' unions.

If Bloomberg wins re-election, rumors have circulated that chief of FDNY Salvatore Cassano, a 39-year veteran of the department, is a leading contender to replace Scoppetta. Cassano, however, has privately expressed doubts about his prospects for getting the job, according to a person that has spoken with him.

Unlike Ray Kelly, his more popular counterpart in the Police Department, Scoppetta never worked within the department he would lead. Instead, Scoppetta came into the job fresh off a sixyear stint in the Giuliani administration as the first commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services.

Patrick Bahnken, president of the Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics and Inspectors union, said he hopes that this time Bloomberg will tap someone from within their ranks instead of a bureaucrat.

"Unless you've done the job, you don't really know what it's all about," Bahnken said. "That's why right now, we have an overemphasis on process rather than substance."

But Frank Dwyer, an FDNY spokesman, said that unions' emphasis on putting one of their own in the top job is overblown, noting that numerous FDNY commissioners throughout history had come from outside the department. He said that a friction with unions was natural, and not attributable to Scoppetta's outsider perspective.

"Every commissioner will have some kind of difficult relationship with any union," Dwyer said. "That's a tradition in any walk of life."

With a $5 billion budget shortfall looming, the next commissioner will likely face the possibility of firehouse closures. Though they were averted this year, Council Member Peter Vallone, Jr., who sits on the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, said he fully expects Bloomberg will again put firehouses on the chopping block.

Union leaders say the impending battle over firehouse closures could be an early test of not only the new commissioner's willingness to work with unions, but of his political skills.

Steve Cassidy, head of the Uniformed Firefighters' Association of Greater New York, noted that Scoppetta, during budget negotiations, suggested the closure of a firehouse in Council Member James Oddo's district in Staten Island, a treasure trove of Republican votes.

He pointed out that if Bloomberg is re-elected, the mayor would face less political pressure to keep firehouses open in a non-election year than he did this year.

The next commissioner will also have to decide whether to continue Scoppetta's efforts to integrate EMS personnel and firefighters into shared quarters and, eventually, to have a single test that would allow the two positions to be combined. The policy has been met with resistance, in part because of frictions between the EMS and firefighters, and stalled in Scoppetta's latter years.

Racial tensions remain in the department. Earlier this year, the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters, a black firefighters union, won a federal court case in which the judge deemed the department's entrance exam racially biased. At the same time, the Uniformed Firefighters' Association, which is predominantly white, has opposed any relaxation of testing standards for new recruits.

The most notorious failing under Scoppetta's leadership-the Deutsche Bank fire-will likely continue to effect policy even after the commissioner is gone. In a damning report released earlier this year, the Department of Investigation found that the FDNY failed to perform required inspections that would have prevented the deaths of two firefighters.

In response, the department has created a 20-person team solely to perform these inspections and signed a $25 million contract with IBM to implement a computer system allowing them to better stay on top of inspections.

Council Member James Vacca, the chair of the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, said that he would like to see the department go further, proposing that it follow in the footsteps of the Department of Buildings, and post all of their inspection information online for public scrutiny.

As for all of the other issues facing the next commissioner, Vacca said a top priority should be mending the department's estranged relations with labor.

Scoppetta rarely granted meetings with union leaders or listened to their suggestions. Vacca said that the next commissioner should at least have an open door policy and not dismiss union concerns out of hand.

"Steve Cassidy's communication with the commissioner was not good," Vacca said. "When union management is always sniping at the commissioner, that can't be good for morale."

As Nicholas Scoppetta departs, union leaders say they hope to have a better relationship with his replacement.

"Unless you've done the job, you don't really know what it's all about," Uniformed EMTs president Patrick Bahnken said.