Community Boards

Board 8 Rallies to Oppose

Local Firehouse Closures When Mayor Bloomberg grimly announced last year that the city should brace itself for a $4.8 billion budget gap in 2003, he assured the public that “smart management [would] keep the pain of belt-tightening to a minimum.”

Though it’s clear by now that the cost-cutting measures floated by City Hall will be anything but painless, few of the proposed cuts have elicited the outrage sparked by the Mayor’s plan to close eight firehouses throughout the city. Residents and firefighters say the projected annual savings of $10 million are a drop in the fiscal bucket when set against the remainder of the city’s massive deficit, to say nothing of its overall $44.5 billion budget for fiscal 2003.

At Community Board 8’s April 24 meeting, residents and firefighters appealed to board members and the public to step up their support in the fight against the engine-company closures.

Christine Rankin, a member of the Firefighters Appreciation Committee, a group formed after the Sept. 11 attack, condemned the city’s plan, telling board members that the meager budgetary savings would hardly justify further stretching the already-thin resources of remaining firefighters.

“When you’re talking about a multibillion[-dollar] deficit alone, 10 million is a ‘whoops!’ in the accounting,” Ms. Rankin said. “The City Council has offered money-generating ideas to cover this $10 million to save the firehouses, and it’s falling on deaf ears. The Mayor’s just not listening.”

Of the eight engine companies slated for closure as early as May 22, Engine 44 at 221 East 75th Street, between Second and Third avenues, and Engine 261 in Queens, which serves Roosevelt Island, have the most direct impact on residents in the Board 8 district. Four of the remaining engine companies on the chopping block are in Brooklyn, another in Queens and a final one in Harlem.

Unlike the other engine companies, which will be shut down completely, Engine 44 will be replaced by Squad 252 from Brooklyn, a unit specializing in hazardous-materials emergencies. The decision to transplant the squad from its current home in Bushwick to the well-heeled confines of the Upper East Side has generated particular controversy due to the new location’s close proximity to the Mayor’s residence on 79th Street, and has prompted grumbling that the neighborhood is receiving special treatment with the installation of an elite squad.

But firefighters say the squad, which will have a much greater scope of coverage than the departing engine company, isn’t necessarily going to provide the Upper East Side with extra protection. In addition to combating the fires in the area Engine 44 covers, Squad 252 will also respond to hazardous-materials calls throughout Manhattan and parts of Queens and Brooklyn. The danger, some firefighters point out, is that the squad will likely be called out of the firehouse more frequently than Engine 44. And unlike engine companies, whose firehouses are often temporarily occupied by nearby engines while they respond to a call, squads are not similarly covered.

“If the squad company goes out. there’s no one to replace them,”

Lt. John Hindle of Engine 44 told The Observer , “and they’re out all the time-there’s only eight or nine [hazardous-materials squads] in the city,”

For neighborhoods with engine companies slated for complete closure, fears that the community will become more vulnerable are all the greater. Matthew Katz, president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, said that residents are worried about the loss of Engine 261, which traverses the Roosevelt Island Bridge, the only road to the island, and is often the first responder in medical as well as fire emergencies.

“We were devised in the late 60’s as a planned community with a large number of seniors, and we’ve had special concerns regarding transportation, especially in terms of emergency medical services,” Mr. Katz told The Observer . “Whatever comes to the island has to come over that bridge. If they’re five minutes delayed because they have to come farther from Queens, that could mean life or death for someone.”

Of considerable concern to some residents is the potentially disastrous effect of a fire involving the Buckeye Pipeline, a major supplier of jet fuel to J.F.K. and La Guardia airports, which runs from Linden, N.J., to New York and passes directly under Long Island City, Queens, in direct proximity to Engine 261.

When the plan to shut down the engine companies first surfaced last November, Board 8 passed a unanimous resolution urging the Mayor to reconsider the closures of Engines 44 and 261.

“We stand by that resolution,” Board 8 chair Charles Warren told The Observer , adding that the board was particularly concerned about the specialized duties handled by Squad 252. “There’s a concern that this will dilute the capacity of the squad to be able to respond to localized emergencies,” he said.

While the Fire Department’s top officials have been supportive of the Mayor’s plan, many firefighters worry that the city has dangerously underestimated the increase in response time that will result from the closures. “Firehouses have been strategically placed through the city, and any time you remove part of that puzzle, then those numbers and that response time will go up dramatically. We’re spread thin as it is,” Engine 261 firefighter Steve Cycan told The Observer .

Firefighters stress that their opposition to the Mayor’s plan isn’t motivated by fear for their jobs-the city has said that firefighters in engine companies slated for closure will be redeployed throughout the city-but that, in addition to increased response times, disturbing the delicate balance of the city’s firehouses will inevitably compromise the safety of the neighborhoods they know so well.

“There’s a whole know- ledge factor of the types of buildings and their little idiosyncrasies passed on from one generation to the next about the buildings in your area,” said Lieutenant Hindle. “And all that’s going to be lost-100 years of knowledge-because once the guys are spread out, the new guys coming in are not going to have the same background.”

-Petra Bartosiewicz

May 6: Board 7, the West Side YMCA, 5 West 63rd Street, 7 p.m., 212-362-4008.