Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fire Marshal Mike

As the NY Times is reporting, there is an ongoing controversy over whether the FDNY could have responded better to a fire in Brooklyn on Saturday night-the Times leads with the official city version: "Firefighters were briefly delayed in putting out a fire in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Saturday night because an engine that had been sent to the blaze was already at another emergency, attending to a police officer who had accidentally shot himself in the leg, the Fire Department said Monday. The fire eventually took the life of a 64-year-old woman living on the top floor."

The UFA, however, sees it differently-and places the blame on a loss of manning: "On Sunday, Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, the firefighters’ union, said that staff cuts imposed by the Bloomberg administration were responsible for the serious delays in getting water on the fire. Three of the first six engine companies to respond had only four firefighters."

So, one woman died and 64 families have been left homeless because of a one minute dispatch error? The FDNY's spokesman elaborates: "The delay lasted “over a minute,” until dispatchers discovered the engine’s whereabouts and sent another one to the fire, on East 29th Street, said James Long, a Fire Department spokesman. He said the department could not say if the delay caused the death of the resident, Mary Feagin, a retired guidance counselor...But Mr. Long denied that the lack of a fifth firefighter led to the spread of the blaze. “A combination of factors contributed to the intensity and the advance of the fire,” he said, including high winds and a door left open in the apartment where the fire began. But the dispatching error did delay getting water on the fire, he said."

OK, but what were the chances that the Department would agree with the union on this? And does its assertion have credibility? In fact, if the FDNY agreed with the UFA on the role of reduced manning, it would have been a real shocker, now wouldn't it? This would seem to call for an independent review so that the city doesn't get to cover up the extent to which the full complement of firefighters might have prevented the blaze from demolishing the entire building.

The one thing no one should rely on is the know nothing assertions of Mike Bloomberg, doing his best Jim Carrey turn as Fire Marshall Bill. As Daily Politics reports, the mayor is absolutely sure that manning wasn't a factor: "Unfortunately, that’s just not the facts. The fact of the matter is it had nothing to do with staffing. First engine showed up in a very acceptable time. The second engine did not and we’re investigating why."

Of course, the first responding engine was handicapped by being short staffed, now wasn't it? Not according to Fire Marshal Mike: "It has nothing to do with the number of people on an engine, which is what they’re talking about." But the number of men on the first truck is an important variable in the ability to get the water on the fire-and with a full complement of firefighters, two lines can be formed for rapid water response-underscoring that the mayor needs to leave the comedy to comedian Carrey.

But we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture here-and the city is also looking to chop 20 firehouses away, risking the public safety in the process. CM Liz Crowley highlights the danger: "Once again, the Mayor’s budget is forcing the FDNY to roll the dice on public safety.  The State is being unfair in its distribution of funding to the City but it is the Mayor who decides what to cut and what to keep.  At a time when the City has dumped billions of dollars into a failed 911-system upgrade -- and will spend millions more to have NASA try to fix it -- the Mayor is reducing FDNY staffing and proposing to close 20 fire companies.  Simply put, it doesn’t matter how fancy our 911-system is if there’s no one at the firehouse to answer your emergency call.  As we can see from the deadly fire in Brooklyn last Friday, closing companies at a time when our fire services are responding to more emergencies than ever before will jeopardize the lives of New Yorkers."

Let's get real here. One woman was killed and twenty firefighters were sent to the hospital-and 100 people were made homeless. It's not often that we lose an entire building to fire in NYC. The exit question here, one that needs to be asked after an independent review of the fiasco is conducted is, How much is the Bloomberg administration compromising the safety of the public with its austerity methods that, in effect, makes the FDNY no different than HRA?