Expert Decries 4-Man Crews

Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York, NY)...12/31/2002

By William Murphy. STAFF WRITER

The Bloomberg administration's plan to reduce engine company staffing levels to four firefighters per tour of duty from the current five would delay hosing down a blaze, dangerously so, says a retired fire chief who studied the matter.

Former Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn conducted departmental tests in 1987 that showed it took as much as five minutes longer to stretch a hose line to the fifth floor of a burning building when four firefighters were involved rather than five.

Based on that, Dunn now says the city should be adding a sixth firefighter to many engine companies rather than paring their staffing to four.

City officials say reducing staffing will save $ 12 million annually.

"I think it's even more important today," Dunn said in an interview yesterday. "Buildings are getting taller, not shorter, and we should be looking at more six-firefighter engines instead of talking about cutting to four."

Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said firefighting tactics have changed since Dunn conducted his study, and the first two engine companies to arrive at a fire now work together to stretch a single hose line.

That, Gribbon said, allows the first hose line - often the crucial first step in dousing a blaze - to be deployed rapidly.

Dunn, though, disagreed, reflecting a growing public debate over the administration's attempts to cut costs at the Fire Department. He said a short-staffed engine company would have to wait for the next-due unit before it could complete the laying of the hose line, and laying a second line would take much longer.

Dunn's conclusions from his 1987 study were approved by his superiors at the time, according to Fire Department documents.

Brian Clinton, chief of training, agreed with Dunn, writing that "two five-man engine companies operating independently can place two lines in operation faster than three four-man engines operating collectively."

Matthew Farrell, the chief in charge of Manhattan, advised his superiors in 1987 to take Dunn seriously, noting that the tests at the Fire Department training facility on Randall's Island were supervised by six chiefs and company officers with a combined 170 years of firefighting experience.

Dunn has written since of the need for six-firefighter engine companies, with an officer to supervise, one firefighter to operate the pumps on the engine, and four firefighters to carry and stretch a hose in high-rises.

The four firefighters can take turns as two-person teams operating the hose line, increasing the length of time before relief becomes necessary, Dunn wrote in a July 9, 1987, memo.

With fewer than four firefighters available to handle the hose, "the so-called 'buddy system' for safety is not possible," he wrote.