Fire Marshals Face Budget Ax

By William Murphy

November 25, 2002

A little-known part of the Fire Department that investigates arson is slated for a major cut under the budget tentatively agreed on by the mayor and the City Council this weekend.

Though the agreement, which could be voted on as early as today, spared eight fire companies, the number of department fire marshals will be reduced from 177 to 127 by January.

With more than 250 marshals in the department during the mid-1990s, the marshals were credited with a huge reduction in the arson rate during the past two decades.

Firefighters unions now worry that could change, and an insurance industry expert said an increase in the number of unsolved arsons could cause business insurance premiums to rise.

"Fire investigations will be severely reduced," the Uniformed Firefighters Association warned in its analysis of the mayor's budget.

Car fires won't be investigated, and neither will fires that call for two or fewer companies.

"The only fires that will be investigated are third alarms and up, fatal fires and fires classified as suspicious by chiefs (manpower permitting)," the union said in the memo.

If the budget reductions go through, there will be two teams of two fire marshals available on the late night shift for the entire city, fire officials and the marshal's union said.

The Fire Department did not dispute the union's analysis, but said it was required to come up with budget cuts, just like all other agencies.

The cut to the marshals is estimated to save $2.5 million annually. The proposal to eliminate eight fire companies would have saved $12 million, but that proposal has been put on hold for the foreseeable future after the City Council agreed to hike property taxes to 18 percent to help balance the budget.

"It's almost like a skeleton crew for a city the size of New York," said Donald Feldman of Westbury, an attorney who represents insurance companies in arson claims. Insurance companies retain their own experts in arson cases, but rely on fire marshals for their reports, he said.

"We rely on fire marshals because they are usually the first there and have access to the first firefighters who respond to the scene," Feldman. "How do you try to convince a judge or a jury of anything without a report from a fire marshal?"

Fire Marshal Edward Burke, the marshals' union representative, said that cutting back on investigations will lead to more arsons as failing or corrupt businesses try to benefit from arson fraud.

With the systematic reduction in the number of marshals in the past eight years, the inspection numbers dropped and the task force stopped inspections in September 2001.

The proposed cuts in the current budget mean the Bronx headquarters of the marshals will be shut down and the Manhattan headquarters will be staffed only during the day. That will leave the Queens office to cover the Bronx at all times and upper Manhattan at night. The Brooklyn office will be responsible for all of Staten Island all of the time and lower Manhattan at night.

"An arson fire is a devastating weapon, capable of causing widespread injury and fatality," Burke said. "Not only is property destroyed and people rendered homeless, but entire neighborhoods are blighted."