Fire Union Fumes Over Staff Cuts

NY Daily News - December 02, 2009

by Jonathan Lemire

Staffing at dozens of the city's busiest FDNY engine companies will be cut Wednesday after a rising number of firefighters calling in sick strained the overtime budget, the Fire Department announced.

The 12-month average of firefighters taking medical leave hit 7.53% at the Dec. 1 deadline, just above the 7.5% threshold that lets Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta cut staffing.

Over protests from the fire unions, the number of firefighters on 49 engine companies will be reduced from five to four.

"Medical leave rates have been rising for several months and we repeatedly warned the [Uniformed Firefighters Association] this was a problem that could again result in the staffing reduction," Scoppetta said.

FDNY officials estimate the cuts first reported in Monday's Daily News - would save the department $500,000 a month in overtime needed to cover shifts left open by sick firefighters.

The officials also said that staffing a fifth firefighter on those 49 engine companies costs approximately $20 million annually amid a city budget crisis - but the unions say the savings aren't worth it.

"This change will compromise the city safety of the public and New York City firefighters," said UFA President Steve Cassidy, who claimed the FDNY was distorting the absentee rate. "They are making no provisions for people with serious injuries or 9/11-related illnesses."

The staffing change means only 11 engine companies will have five firefighters. The other 183 will have only four as the majority of engine companies already had staffs of four.

The annual medical leave rate last exceeded 7.5% in December 2004, prompting a round of reductions to fire engine crews. Those cuts were restored a few months later.

If the medical leave rate hits 7.6% of the 8,700-person workforce, the cuts are mandatory, as part of a 1996 labor contract. The FDNY will next review the rate on Jan. 1.