UFA: Engine Co. Staff Cut Will Hurt Response Time

Chief Leader - December 08, 2009

by ARI PAUL

FDNY Acts on Sick-Leave Rise

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy Dec. 1 blasted the Fire Department's decision to reduce staffing on 49 engine companies from five Firefighters to four as a result of a spike in sick leave, saying it would result in delays in response times.

Under a 1996 agreement between the FDNY and the UFA, the Fire Commissioner has the discretion to reduce the number of five-Firefighter engine companies if the average annual sick-leave rate rises above 7.5 percent, which it did this month, reaching 7.53 percent. The Commissioner would be obligated to make the reductions if the number rose above 7.6 percent.

Scoppetta: Costing Us in OT

In a statement, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said, "Medical leave rates have been rising for several months and we repeatedly warned the UFA this was a problem that could again result in the staffing reduction as outlined in their contract with the city. Increased medical leave is costing us more in overtime, and we're going to do everything we can to be fiscally prudent during these difficult economic times."

In addition to questioning the validity of the department's sick-leave rate, Mr. Cassidy told reporters at the union's east-side Manhattan headquarters that the department should have considered the rise in sick leave in the context of 9/11-related illnesses.

"They send us periodic reports; those periodic reports have shown that the numbers have been creeping up. So we're not surprised we're here," he said. "The Fire Department makes no provisions to exclude incredibly serious injuries, whether it's Firefighters dying of cancer, Firefighters burned and in the burn center, Firefighters seriously injured at fires. There is no provision to exclude that, and we've asked the department to exclude swine flu."

Of the city's 194 engine companies, there are still 11 operating with five Firefighters, and if the sick-leave rate dips below 7.5 percent as of Jan. 1, the fifth Firefighter on the 49 docked companies will be restored. Mr. Scoppetta said that the fifth Firefighter on the 49 companies costs the city $20 million annually, and insisted that response times will not be compromised as a result of the reduction.

City Councilman James Vacca, who chairs the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, questioned why the FDNY would use the option to reduce staffing when fire risks are higher due to the December holidays.

"I would ask that the city carefully review this option before they exercise it," he said in a phone interview.

The UFA fought the department's push to end five-Firefighter engine operation earlier this year before the City Council was able to find funding to divert operational cuts. The union has argued that a 1987 FDNY study concluded that it takes a four-Firefighter unit longer to establish a hose line than a unit with five.

Mr. Cassidy said he has asked the department to commission new research on the issue, and added that technological advancements developed since that study, such as the introduction of bunker gear, would warrant one.

Greater Chance of Fatigue

"Common sense would say a new study with bunker gear will show that the disparity will grow. Bunker gear is heavy, dramatically heavier than what Firefighters were using prebunker gear," he said. "Part of this is just the absolute fatigue it takes to stretch a hose line up several flights of stairs."

Chief FDNY spokesman Francis X. Gribbon responded in an e-mail, "Department protocol directs two engine companies (with a minimum staffing level of eight firefighters) to stretch and operate a hose line; and at least two engines get dispatched right away to a structural fire. This has been the case for nearly 20 years, during which 70 percent of all engines have operated—safely and effectively— with four Firefighters."

Says Other Cities Use 4

Commissioner Scoppetta, who will retire at the end of the year, has argued that five-Firefighter engine companies are excessive because other large cities operate with either fouror three-Firefighter companies.

Mr. Cassidy countered that comparisons with other departments can't be made because FDNY responders use an "interior-attack" method that is unique from other departments, and that no other department deploys ladder companies on the floor above a fire.

"We are prone to injuries," he said.

Fire departments around the country don't go there. That's the truth."

Mr. Cassidy also vowed to continue the union's fight against the Unified Call-Taker 911 system, which he believed was responsible for several units being sent to erroneous locations since the program's institution in May.

Under the old system, Fire Alarm Dispatchers took information from callers with fire emergencies; now a general Dispatcher dispatches a fire company after getting an address and continues receiving other information.

While the department agreed last month to temporarily modify the UCT system by allowing Fire Alarm Dispatchers to listen in to UCT Dispatchers taking calls, Mr. Cassidy said the Fire Alarm Dispatchers still do not have the ability to interview the caller, noting that they have more training in fire calls than UCT Dispatchers, a claim the department denies.

"The UCT system is designed to get rid of their jobs," Mr. Cassidy said.