'Sleep With One Eye Open'

Chief Leader - December 21, 2010

by FLORA FAIR

Fire Commissioner Takes Heat Over Night Closings

Is the plan to close 20 firehouses overnight a tough but necessary budget decision? Or "Russian roulette for 8.5 million people"? It depends on whom you ask.

The proposed closings were the focus of a Dec. 13 City Council Finance Committee hearing featuring testimony from FDNY officials and union leaders about the department's budget plans. And Council Members placed Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano on the hot-seat.

'Sorry, But You Deserve Abuse'

"I'm sorry you're going to have to be the face for some of the abuse you're going to be taking," Councilman James S. Oddo (R-Staten Island) said to Mr. Cassano. "I know we're picking on a friend of yours," he continued, gesturing to Finance Chair Domenic Recchia, "but it's well-deserved."

In his opening remarks, Mr. Cassano said that "the fiscal strength of the city is being put to the test," citing the current $2.4-billion budget gap.

The FDNY budget proposal closes $22.9 million of its $60-million target -with $15.6 million in cuts and $7.3 million in new revenue. Mr. Cassano acknowledged that the cuts would mean "that we will have fewer resources to carry out our mission of saving lives and property."

The biggest cost-saving measure is the planned closing of 20 fire companies overnight, projected to save $15 million during the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. The FDNY decided to close facilities during the night shift (6 p.m. to 9 a.m.) because many Firefighters are out during the day for annual medicals or additional training. The closings are expected to save on operating costs and overtime pay.

'Can Reduce Night OT'

"With these night closures, the department will experience an increase in availability of uniformed fire personnel on the night tour" for other companies, Mr. Cassano said. "That increased availability will reduce overtime on the night tour, resulting in savings."

The FDNY is looking at factors like average response times and fire-company proximities to help determine which companies to close. It must send the finalized list to the City Council 45 days before the closings. Mr. Cassano said he would let every Council Member whose district is affected know once the list is done.

"Obviously, we take no pleasure in making any of these cuts," Mr. Cassano said. "Closing fire companies is not something we take lightly."

'Sleep With One Eye Open'

Steve Cassidy, head of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, testified that the vast majority of closings would happen at engine companies, which are responsible for getting water on a fire. According to Mr. Cassidy, 14 of the closings will occur on a rotating basis throughout the five boroughs. "Everyone on the City Council will then have some skin in the game," he said. "You're not going to know what night you're going to need to sleep with one eye open." Uniformed Fire Officers President Alexander Hagan called it "Russian roulette for 8.5-million people-most of them sound asleep at the time."

After Mr. Cassano laid out the Fire Department's plan, Council Fire and Criminal Justice Chair Elizabeth Crowley asked him what percentage of fire fatalities occur at night. The Commissioner responded that it was 70 percent-a statistic that didn't sit well with the Council.

Councilmember Letitia James (D-Brooklyn) recalled a string of nighttime arsons in Prospect Heights in 2006, some of which were fatal. "It is unfortunate that we on the City Council are not in a position to vote against this," she said. Because these are mid-year budget modifications, the Council cannot vote on them unless Mayor Bloomberg is also looking to increase spending in other areas. The Council in June blocked a mayoral proposal to close 20 fire companies before signing off on the executive budget.

The closings come at a time when the department is headed for a record-breaking 500,000 emergency responses for 2010. Ms. Crowley asked the Commissioner the one question at the center of all the debate: Would this impact public safety? Mr. Cassano reluctantly acknowledged that the closings would likely impact citywide response times at night, and that they would certainly affect the districts in which they took take place.

Unions Respond

In the public testimony that followed, union leaders blasted the proposal. Mr. Cassidy challenged any research the FDNY might have to indicate the effect of the closings would be minimal, and that response times have improved. Union leaders have long argued that response times are artificially reduced by shifting calls from FDNY dispatchers (who are counted in overall response time) to 911 dispatchers (who are not). Mr. Cassidy said that while he recognized the budget situation, official response times are no indication that the Fire Department can afford to make these closings.

"This isn't Iowa. We're not responding to a fire at a farm," he said of the FDNY's statement that response times are well below the 6-minute national average. "These are people's lives... 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. is a long time to be without medical service and fire protection."

Armed with numbers and disturbing photos of burn victims, Uniformed Fire Officer Association President Alexander Hagan made the point that if a ladder company or Battalion Chief arrives at a fire, there's nothing they can do to put it out until an engine company arrives. "When somebody says, 'Response time will only be marginally affected,' I ask you exactly what does 'marginally affected' mean? And what is the result of an extra 20 seconds in response time? It's crushing," he said.

"We're approaching Christmas, and if you listen to the news radio, you'll hear an announcement that will say, 'Post Offices are closed today, alternate side [parking] is suspended, there'll be no sanitation pickup'," he continued. "No one dares mention there'll be no fire protection, because the people would revolt. It is the essential service."

More Cuts, More Overtime

Additional cuts were also discussed for the 60 five-Firefighter engine companies, which Mr. Cassano said would be reduced to 4-person companies by February. The unions have argued that the removal of one Firefighter will have a serious impact on how quickly a company can extinguish a blaze. Additionally, the fifth Firefighter at each of these companies is often used to fill in staffing gaps at four-Firefighter companies when someone is out sick.

Mr. Cassano said the FDNY will simply let the five-Firefighter agreement run out on Jan. 31, but there was debate at the hearing about whether this could be done without bringing in a mediator to renegotiate terms. This change was estimated to save $7.9 million for the rest of FY 2011.

Despite these cuts and new revenue possibilities, FDNY is requesting $30 million to pay for staff overtime. Overtime costs for the department are high in general-over $200 million for FY 2011. Currently, staffing shortfalls account for an estimated $2 million in overtime each month, due to a hiring freeze ordered by a Federal judge in September in a case charging discriminatory hiring practices at the FDNY.