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Thread: Court Delays Bid to Cut Size of Fire Crews

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    Court Delays Bid to Cut Size of Fire Crews

    Court Delays Bid to Cut Size of Fire Crews
    By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD

    Taking aim at budget cuts its members say will jeopardize public safety, the union representing New York City firefighters has won a court order temporarily prohibiting the city from reducing the size of crews on certain engines to four from five.

    The city, searching for ways to help close a $3.8 billion budget gap, including a $45 million hole in the Fire Department budget, had planned to begin reducing the size of the crews on Friday. But a state appellate judge ruled on Friday afternoon that the city cannot go forward until the appellate court reviews a lower court decision that allowed the reduction.

    The city and the firefighters' union, which announced the decision yesterday, are expected to submit papers to the court tomorrow.

    Like past mayors, Michael R. Bloomberg has found it politically difficult to cut the Fire Department budget. It has been especially hard for him in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, in which 343 firefighters died.

    Community groups and elected officials have organized frequent demonstrations against the city's plan to close eight firehouses around the city. Yesterday, more than 40 people from neighborhoods around the firehouses marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall.

    At one point, while shouting opposition to the plan, City Councilman James E. Davis held aloft a photograph of a firefighter killed on Sept. 11.

    But in seeking to reduce the manpower on engines, Mr. Bloomberg took on one of the most sacrosanct causes of the union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

    The city had planned to reduce the number of firefighters on engines in 53 of the department's 203 companies to four from five, saving about $12 million. A fire officer would still ride with the four-person engine companies, which are responsible for extinguishing fires while ladder companies search and ventilate burning buildings.

    In December, a state judge refused a request to bar the move at 49 companies covered by the union's contract, saying the city complied with provisions allowing such crew reductions if the rate of firefighters on medical leave exceeded 7.5 percent. Fire officials say it is above 8 percent, leading the city's lawyers to contend they are on firm legal ground.

    Union officials said the rate surpassed 7.5 percent because of firefighters injured while working at ground zero. The union has accused the city of failing to provide proper equipment during the first two weeks of the site cleanup, when airborne contaminants were at the highest and left many firefighters with persistent lung ailments.

    "We believe that although there is no specific provision in the contract that talks about catastrophic events, clearly 9/11 never could have been foreseen," said Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the union. "The ramification of the health of the firefighters is a direct result of 9/11."

    Mr. Cassidy suggested that reducing the manpower on the engines, coupled with the firehouse closings, would make fighting fires more dangerous and ultimately raise the rate of medical leaves if injuries occurred.

    Mr. Bloomberg had delayed making the manpower change after the December court victory to give Mr. Cassidy more time to work on reducing the rate of medical leaves. Fire Department officials have maintained that the union has had little incentive to reduce the medical leave rate because it gives active firefighters more overtime. Union officials scoff at that accusation.

    Michael A. Cardozo, the city's corporation counsel, played down the significance of the restraining order and said yesterday that he was confident "we will prevail" once the appellate court reviews the matter.

    Mr. Cardozo said he believed the courts would focus on the legal issues not the emotional ones. He noted that the judge who ruled in December, Justice James G. Starkey of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, had said he was sympathetic to firefighters but nevertheless found the city's move legal.

    "He said he had particular sympathy because his grandfather was a firefighter who died in action," Mr. Cardozo said, "but the city was perfectly within its legal rights."

    Squabbling between the Fire Department and the union over the size of the engine companies goes back to the late 1980's, when Mayor Edward I. Koch won permission to reduce engine crews to four firefighters from five, in a move the city said would save $25 million a year. Then as now, the firefighters' union complained that the move would endanger its members.

    In 1996, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced that he would put a fifth firefighter back on 49 engine crews. In a deal he reached with the union, the city retained the right to go back to four-member crews if the number of firefighters on sick leave climbed above 7.5 percent.

    Fire union officials have said national standards recommend companies of five or six firefighters in urban areas because of the difficulty in stretching hose lines to the upper floors of large buildings. But Fire Department officials say most departments in the country have four or fewer firefighters on their engines.

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    Bravest escaping the ax - for now

    Bravest escaping the ax - for now


    By JOHNNY DWYER and ALICE McQUILLAN
    DAILY NEWS WRITERS


    The firefighters union has won at least a temporary reprieve from the city's plan to cut staff at 49 engine companies.

    The stay, granted last week by the state Supreme Court's Appellate Division, orders the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the city to present arguments in court tomorrow.

    A 1996 labor contract permits the city to reduce staffing to four from five firefighters in certain engine companies when the FDNY's medical leave exceeds 7.5%.

    However, UFA President Stephen Cassidy maintains it's "offensive and morally wrong" to now exercise that option. He said medical leave percentages rose largely because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and force reductions.

    An FDNY spokesman referred calls to the city corporation counsel's office, which didn't immediately return a call.

    Cassidy said yesterday citizens groups are urging the union to also sue to stop thecity's plan to close eight fire companies next month. He said union officials haven't decided whether to pursue legal action.

    At a rally in Brooklyn yesterday protesting the closings, Cassidy blasted Gov. Pataki as "AWOL because he made promises to firefighters."

    About 300 people massed outside Brooklyn Borough Hall, chanting "Save our Firehouses" and "Fuhgeddaboudit" when prompted by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

    "Of the eight cuts, five are in Brooklyn," said Markowitz. "We will not take this on the chin."

    Actor Steve Buscemi, a former firefighter, urged the crowd to call the city's new service hotline, 311, and tell Mayor Bloomberg not to close the firehouses - a move that would save $12 million. The actor also took a swipe at the governor.

    "Gov. Pataki was at Ground Zero claiming the war started here. If that's the case, why are we looking to weaken our defenses?" Buscemi asked.

    Meanwhile, a group trying to save the firehouses is claiming $1.5 million in pledges. The group expects more money May 15 when Wall Street firms are being asked to donate their trading commissions for that day, said Adam Brecht, founder of Keep NYC's Firehouses Open.

    Originally published on April 28, 2003


    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/stor...2p-72737c.html

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