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A crowd of elected officials and firefighters gathered in front of a Long Island City firehouse Friday to slam the Bloomberg administration's proposal to strip the department of 400 firefighters.
One of those firefighters was Bob -- a 23-year veteran of the department who did not want to use his last name for fear of repercussion. Bob has fought blazes with the rest of Queens' Hook and Ladder 116 for nine years. Cutting almost 7 percent of the city's fire companies now, Bob said, would be "crazy."
"It's more dangerous for the community and me," Bob said of the potential closures, which he contends will add catastrophic seconds to the department's record-low response time. "Another 30 seconds, a minute, forget about it."
Overall, the Bloomberg administration is proposing to cut $27 million from the Fire Department in fiscal year 2011 -- equal to about a 1.7 percent cut in controllable city funds. To close a budget gap, the administration has proposed to reduce the number of firefighters per engine, get rid of the so-called outdated street fire alarm boxes and, most controversially, close 20 fire companies.
But firefighters, city and state politicians as well as labor leaders are ready to bring the heat on the administration. They say the city cannot afford to lose any firefighters, especially in light of this month's bomb scare in Times Square. If the mayor cares about public safety and is willing to abandon cuts in police officers, they say, firefighters should be held harmless too.
"We're like the Marine Corps for the city," said Fred Sutton, a retired firefighter from Ladder 116 on Friday. "Cops are like the army."
The administration counters: There have to be cuts somewhere.
"'We've been forced into a position that we have to make choices that no one wants to make and they're very unpopular," said mayoral Spokesperson Marc LaVorgna of the fire company cuts. If the administration didn't make these decisions, then the city's fiscal situation could end up like Albany's, LaVorgna added.
The administration's proposal would aim not to close firehouses, which typically hold more than one fire company, such as a ladder and an engine company.
Critics of the cuts say the administration should look elsewhere to trim the fiscal fat. Comptroller John Liu argues the fire company closures are small compared to the entire city budget -- in fiscal year 2011 the closures would save about $5.6 million. The city could cut back on unnecessary contracts to save the engines and ladders, he said.
Others attribute the administration's proposals to fear mongering.
"This is the administration trying to scare the crap out of New Yorkers," said Assemblymember Michael Gianaris at Friday's rally in Queens.
The administration has not said what companies could close, and it does not have to until 45 days before the budget deadline of June 30, according to a mayoral spokesperson.
When asked how the department would select fire companies to close, a Fire Department spokesperson e-mailed: "The criteria would be, as always, to allocate our available resources as best we can to protect the citizens of New York City."
In anticipation of the cuts, labor officials are looking to the mayor's proposal from last year, which would have cut 16 fire companies (it was reversed by the City Council). Many think those same companies, which included a company on the South Shore of Staten Island, one on City Island in the Bronx and another in Bushwick, Brooklyn (to name just a few), will end up on the chopping block again.
The loss of 400 of the city's 11,000 firefighters under the proposal would be done through attrition, according to mayor's budget proposal.
The last time fire companies were closed was in 2003. Six engines were shuttered, including one at the firehouse in Long Island City.
Outside ladder 116 on Friday, several council members said they wouldn't take closures as the answer.
"The mayor found $100 million to secure our security services," said Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, the chair of the council's Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, referring to the mayor's promise to save cops from budget cuts. "Well, the Fire Department is our security services."
For now, fire, state and council officials aren't looking to compromise, and they are using the recent scare in Times Square to bulk up their argument.
"We are prepared and trained to do the unimaginable, respond to a biological, chemical, nuclear or radiological attack. We can't do that from a closed firehouse," said Steve Cassidy, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. "Last Saturday was the reminder that New York City remains the number one target for terrorists. I am not sure the mayor got the message."
In terms of need, fire officials say the city now has fewer fires than in years past. In 2009, the department responded to 43,677 fires compared to 51,563 in 2002. But, labor officials argue, the department has taken on other responsibilities, like building inspections resulting from the fire at the Deutsche Bank building in 2007. In 2002, the department responded to 374,949 non-fire incidents. In 2009, they went to 429,541 incidents -- an increase of 14.6 percent.
All of that takes manpower, said labor leaders, and the city can't lose any of it.
When asked whether fire unions would consider contributing to health care costs or other benefits to save fire companies, union officials scoffed.
"Fire protection should not be paid for by firefighters," said Capt. Al Hagan, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "We feel that fire protection should be paid for by the people, and we think the people have no objection to paying for fire protection."
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