With hundreds of city firefighters out of work every day for medical problems ranging from broken bones to more serious illnesses, the Fire Department is moving to reduce staffing at 49 engine companies in the five boroughs, city officials said Tuesday.
Officials say the change, to take effect at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, is prompted by a provision in the labor contract that allows the city to reduce staffing when the average number of firefighters on medical leave citywide reaches a certain percentage over a 12-month period. In doing so, the city can avoid paying overtime to firefighters to keep engine companies at agreed-upon staffing levels.
The move immediately ignited a new round of debate over an issue that has long been a source of contention between the department and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the union that represents the city's 8,800 rank-and-file firefighters. It is the third time since 2003 that the department has cut staffing at engine companies - a condition that usually lasts a few months, until sick firefighters return to work. The average number of firefighters out sick each day during the last three weeks has ranged from 500 to 700.
"They are clearly spoiling for a fight on staffing and firehouse closings," said Stephen J. Cassidy, the union's president, who held a news conference on Tuesday afternoon to denounce the city's decision.
The 49 engine companies affected have five firefighters per shift and will lose one. Fifteen companies in the Bronx, 14 in Brooklyn, 12 in Manhattan, 7 in Queens and one on Staten Island are affected. Of the other 145 engine companies in the city, 134 are already staffed with four firefighters. The remaining 11 are always staffed with five firefighters, regardless of the medical leave numbers, because their members provide daily backup to companies whose firefighters call in sick.
Ladder companies, in contrast, are staffed with five firefighters at all times. But Mr. Cassidy warned of reduced staffing at ladder companies as well if the number of those on medical leave in the engine companies outpaces those on hand to fill in for them. With the medical leave numbers rising for months, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, who is leaving at year's end, is exercising his discretion to reduce staffing at the 7.5 percent threshold. The contract mandates such cuts when the rate reaches 7.6 percent, officials said.
"Increased medical leave is costing us more in overtime, and we're going to do everything we can to be fiscally prudent in these difficult economic times," Mr. Scoppetta said in a statement.
Mr. Cassidy contended that a minimum of five firefighters per engine company was essential for the health and safety of firefighters and the public. The union also suggested that the prevalence of swine flu had driven the sick rate higher than normal, but the department said those numbers were negligible.