City Hall Nears Decision on New Fire Commissioner

NY Times - December 18, 2009


With two weeks to go before New Year's Eve, the Bloomberg administration on Thursday found itself running out of days to name a replacement for the outgoing fire commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, who is retiring at the end of the year.

So far, about a half-a-dozen people have been interviewed for the job at City Hall, and, in the absence of action, a few of their names have unofficially leaked out.

Those include Mylan L. Denerstein, executive deputy attorney general for social justice in the office of the state attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, as well as Phillip E. Parr, a retired former department battalion chief who was later involved in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Another considered high in the running is the chief of department, Salvatore Cassano, the department's highest uniformed officer, who is one year shy of reaching the mandatory retirement age for uniformed firefighters, officials said. (The position of commissioner, a civilian post, has no mandatory retirement age.)

Signals from in and out the department were mixed on who would take over.

One official said Ms. Denerstein was not considered likely. Another said it was "50-50" between her and Chief Cassano. All agreed an announcement would likely come soon, considering that the two weeks prior to Jan. 1 are packed with holidays and religious celebrations.

"I think things are getting close," said one official, who, like the others, requested anonymity because they were not authorized speak because the process was not complete.

The Fire Department is at somewhat of a crossroads.

A federal judge this year found that it had discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants in entrance examinations in 1999 and 2002, and the department is now hashing out how to diversity a force that is still overwhelmingly white. City officials say minority outreach efforts, and a new test introduced in 2007, are part of a long-term solution to correct past wrongs. But the lawsuit is far from settled.

On a practical level, representatives of the unions that represent firefighters and chiefs have laced into a new firefighting dispatch system, saying it sometimes leads to firefighters receiving wrong or incomplete information on emergencies. The system, put in place in May, is know as the unified call-taking system, and city officials credit it with cutting response times to historic lows.

But all sides agree it is a work in progress - and a fundamental change in the culture of the way 911 emergency calls by citizens are handled by operators and dispatchers.

How the Bloomberg administration is weighing the city's needs against the background and experience of the candidates is murky.

"We will not comment on the process until an announcement is made," said Jason Post, a mayoral spokesman, when asked about the topic.

Ms. Denerstein, an African-American, who was previously the deputy commissioner for legal affairs at the Fire Department, had also served in the United States attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, where she was deputy chief of the criminal division.

Mr. Parr, who is also African-American, spoke at a 2005 hearing before the Senate Homeland Security committee of his experience in emergency management, saying that he joined the Federal Emergency Management Agency after leaving the Fire Department and was in New Orleans for the response to Katrina.

"During my tenure with the F.D.N.Y., and particularly during my tenure as a chief officer, I served in many capacities including but not limited to: fire and emergency ground commander, operations, planning for Y2K scenarios, and as a deputy director in the New York City Office of Emergency Management," he said in his testimony. "I have played an active role in countless disasters and crisis situations," including the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center, where he was on the scene prior to the towers' collapse.