Fired up over cuts

FDNY closings alarm neighbors


The math and the statistics and the dollars tell one story, but to some New Yorkers in neighborhoods where the Bloomberg administration is bent on closing fire companies, there's another side, one that defies cold calculation.

Their firehouses provide a sense of security that can't be measured, a priceless feeling of protection and an ever-present bond.

"I'm accustomed to knowing they're around the corner. I've never needed them, but I think I feel safer that they're there," said Evelyn Ludwick, who has lived for 40 years in Dutch Kills, a bedrock neighborhood of homeowners and manufacturing companies in Long Island City, Queens. She was speaking about Engine Co. 261, at 29th St. and 37th Ave.

"I'm very angry they want to close it," she said. "I feel like they're protecting me. It's nice to know that."

"It just doesn't make sense to close it," said Davenji Powell, who moved in three months ago a few doors down from Engine Co. 209, on Bedford Ave. in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

It's a densely populated neighborhood of subdivided row houses, brownstones, aging projects and new buildings.

"Almost every time I come home late at night, I see them shooting out," Powell, 28, said of the fire rigs. "Say a fire breaks out at night in someone's kitchen, and it takes a while before anyone knows. Then they would have to wait longer before another fire engine comes."

Closed but not empty

The two companies are among eight slated to be closed as part of budget cuts to the Fire Department. If Albany fails to come up with a $1 billion infusion of cash for the city, Mayor Bloomberg says as many as 40 fire companies might close.

While Engines 209 and 261 would be shut, their counterparts, Ladder Cos. 102 and 116, will remain open, giving the appearance that nothing has changed.

Neighbors will still see a big red truck inside, but there will be no pumper, which enables firefighters to put water on the flames.

Both firehouses have huge signs on them proclaiming, "Save the Engine Company" and handmade cardboard signs reading, "No FDNY Cutbacks."

A petition drive has been organized, and rallies have taken place. A big rally is planned for Sunday on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall.

Engine 261, a 109-year-old company nicknamed the Flaming Skulls, serves a bustling community that includes a Con Edison plant along the East River, Long Island Rail Road yards, Citicorp building, countless factories and offices and two schools.

The city tried to close 261 in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and five years ago tried to move it to Jamaica, Queens. The community is fighting again.

"The people want us to be here. We were on Broadway this morning, and a lady walked up to me and handed me a bunch of signed petitions," Lt. Thomas McKenna said.

"They're breaking up a family," he said. "I don't know how they can do it."

Engine 209, a 125-year-old company known as The Bedford Express, saw nonstop action during the arson plague of the '70s. Times are slower, but in 1994, when a pilot program was introduced dispatching firefighters to heart attack and choking victims, the first life saved was by Engine 209.

At The Neighborhood Supermarket, storeowner Eddie Cebella and his wife and infant daughter were behind the counter, where the plexiglass has flyers to save the firehouse and a clipboard holds pages of petitions to keep Engine 209 open.

The morning's tally was four signatures.

"Every day they come and take the pages," said Cebella, 42. "So many people signed.

"We want to have protection ... the people in the neighborhood need it," he said, smiling at 6-week-old Erica.

Broad support

The firefighters of 209 say they are encouraged by the breadth of community support but nevertheless are weary and demoralized.

They say they've helped close down illegal dwellings, inspect buildings and hydrants and serve as eyes and ears in the neighborhood.

Martha Callender, who lives on Myrtle Ave., was adamant about the situation.

"They should leave it just the way it is," she said, recalling how swiftly firefighters once responded to a blaze in a building adjacent to hers.

"It sticks in my mind," she said.

Her daughter Deborah, 8, was wide-eyed when told there might not be a pumper truck in the firehouse anymore. "That's very dangerous," she said. "If someone gets trapped, and they don't have the water, they could burn to death."

Originally published on April 25, 2003