FDNY Braves Tough Times

SI Advance - December 07, 2009

by Peter N. Spencer

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. --- It has a brand new, billion-dollar communication system that doesn't work properly.

It has a budget that must be slashed by a hundred million dollars in the next six months.

It has overtime costs that have already forced staffing cuts, and the government may try to close some of its companies -- again.

And its boss is leaving at the end of this month.

No, it's not the latest financial institution on the verge of collapse.

It's the FDNY.

And a Staten Islander could soon be at the top.

Depending on one's perspective, the city's second largest public safety agency is either heading for a rocky year, or just in the midst of growing pains.

Union officials and some of the rank and file cite serious flaws in the new Unified Call Taker system (UCT), wasteful spending and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's penchant for closing firehouses during budget shortfalls (See: Post 9/11 and last year's fight to keep four companies open, including Engine 161 in South Beach).

City officials point to statistics that show firefighter response times and fire deaths are the lowest on record, and dismiss the UCT issues as the normal hiccups of transitioning to a technological system that will save even more time and more lives.

"The true promise of technology is realized when it is used to improve lives for the better, and Unified Call Taking is among the city's most transformative IT projects in this regard," Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Commissioner Paul Cosgrave said when officials tweaked the new system in May after several miscues.

But Cosgrave resigned last week, in the wake of more miscues by UCT operators in November that may have been fatal. A dad and two sons died in Brooklyn fire after a 911 call-taker gave the wrong information. Firefighters were delayed five minutes before getting to a Queens blaze that killed three because a 911 operator keyed in the wrong address.

The City Council Committee Fire and Criminal Justice Committee has scheduled a hearing to discuss the UCT and other emergency communications issues on Thursday. Outgoing commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta is scheduled to testify, and Salvatore Cassano, FDNY Chief of Department, will likely be by his side.

Cassano, a Huguenot resident, is the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the agency and a favorite to replace Scoppetta. Because he is a 40-year veteran who recently reached the mandatory retirement age of 65, the mayor would have to grant Cassano a waiver in order to continue in his current position.

The mayor has interviewed several commissioner candidates outside the FDNY, according to several sources familiar with the process. But time is running out. Scoppetta is leaving Jan. 1.

Bloomberg often prefers to look outside the government to fill major posts, and some believe that may be his thinking with the FDNY.

"I think that works better in theory than in practice with an agency like the FDNY," said City Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island). "I hope they hire a commissioner who is steeped in the tradition of the department ... so the rank and file believes decisions are being made by someone who understands the job." Adding to the anxiety of succession, the mayor recently ordered the department to cut $100 million from its budget through fiscal year 2011, which starts in July; and Scoppetta reduced the number of firefighters on 49 engine companies from five to four because of overtime expenses.

"You can't talk to a firefighter who isn't worried about his job or what the future holds," Oddo said.

Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), who chairs the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, believes higher-than-expected city revenues, and a higher attrition rate will ease budget concerns.

He also received assurance from the Scoppetta that the department won't seek to close fire companies -- at least not or this upcoming year.

"Because it is an agency without a head, right now is a time filled with speculation and a lot of uneasiness," Vacca said.