New York Firefighters Cite Low Morale

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Despite their status as America's heroes, many of New York's firefighters say morale has sunk to the lowest point in memory because of contract disputes and the loss of hundreds of veteran colleagues.

"Firemen always love their job, but as far as working for the city and being treated the way we've been treated, morale is pretty lousy,'' said Tony Cummo, a 25-year veteran planning to retire Nov. 1.

The 11,500-member department lost 343 firefighters in the World Trade Center collapse, and 747 more have since retired. An additional 360 commanding officers said in a union poll last month that they plan to retire within a year.

Firefighter unions say the departures threaten public safety.

Department leaders say claims that people are in danger are overblown. They say that bolstered training and new recruits' enthusiasm can compensate for the loss of experience.

"We're on a mission,'' said Sal Cassano, department chief of operations. "Sometimes, with dedication and enthusiasm, you make up for a little of that experience.''

The department lost 4,400 years of accumulated experience when the twin towers collapsed. Many of the hundreds of firefighters who retired since then were drawn by the prospect of higher pension benefits because of the overtime they worked during the aftermath of Sept. 11. Others were pushed to leave by nervous family members, or they wearied of the pay.

Rank-and-file firefighters have worked for more than two years without a raise or union contract. A new recruit with a spouse and two children earns about $31,000 a year. After 20 years, salaries can reach about $55,000.

The firefighters union and the union representing commanding officers are lobbying Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration for pension and pay changes to help retain veterans.

They say probationary firefighters with less than a year on the job are rushing into situations for which they are unprepared, and freshly promoted officers are struggling to manage these inexperienced crews.

Union officials acknowledge there have been no deaths or serious injuries since Sept. 11. And they declined to cite any incidents of delayed or risky operations, saying that would embarrass individual fire companies.

But another terror attack, even a more conventional disaster, could be catastrophic, they say.

"It's Russian roulette,'' said John Dunne, who represents fire captains. "We're just hoping that nothing happens, that the cylinder that clicks when you put it next to your head isn't loaded.''

Carlos Kirjner, who directed a five-month study of the department's Sept. 11 response for management consultant McKinsey & Co., acknowledged the extraordinary challenge. But he said a strong pool of experienced firefighters who remain on the job should allow the department to recover.

"There are certainly lots of talented people in the department,'' he said. "Certainly with appropriate training they will be able to step up to perform any tasks that they are asked to undertake.''

Under the current system, retirees receive a pension equal to half their last year's pay. Many of those who made thousands of dollars of overtime after Sept. 11 felt they had little choice but to retire now.

The union wants to base firefighters' pensions instead on their highest-paying year of service. But City Hall, facing a more than $5 billion budget deficit, opposes the idea, estimating it could cost $18 million annually.

On pay, the firefighters union is weighing whether to ask for a deal similar to the two-year, 11.5 percent raise granted to police this week by an arbitration board. The officers' union has approved a similar arrangement.