A Burning Argument
Fire union shows danger of closings

By William Murphy
Staff Writer

May 19, 2003

The Christmas tree on the screen, a dry Scotch Pine, took less than 10 seconds to become a wall of flames. The couch was up on the screen next, and it took about 90 seconds from the first flicker until the room seemed engulfed in flames.

The video, filmed by an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, has been used by the Fire Department for its fire prevention classes for years. Now the main firefighters union is using it to warn community groups about the potential dangers if the Bloomberg administration cuts the department's budget.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association has made about two dozen presentations in recent weeks, including last week at Queens Borough Hall, said Philip McArdle, the union's sergeant-at-arms and its health and safety specialist.

In the video, firefighters arrive at the couch fire after three minutes and 40 seconds to be met with intense black smoke. McArdle tells his audiences: "We're not there yet," a reference to the average response time in the city of a bit less than five minutes.

"And then I tell them something the city doesn't tell them. It takes several more minutes to stretch a hose line and get water on the fire. On the sixth floor of an apartment, it takes even longer," he said in an interview.

"The commissioner has himself said that response times would not increase by more than a minute, and I want people to see what can happen in a minute," said McArdle, who worked in the HazMat unit in Maspeth until getting to his union post last year.

"Look at that doll on the floor," he said, pointing to the couch-fire video, "and ask yourself how long would it take a child to die. It wouldn't take long at all."

The Fire Department said it has to eliminate eight units under Bloomberg administration demands for budgetary savings, which would include closing seven firehouses and reducing the number of firefighters at 49 engine companies to four at any given time from the current five. A handful of companies would keep five.

"We have had to come up with $90 million in savings," department spokesman Frank Gribbon said Friday.

"Last year, we had the least number of civilian fire deaths, 97, since 1927, and we hope that trend will continue downward, as it has for the last half-dozen years or so.

"As the commissioner has said, nobody wants to close firehouses, but we're in a fiscal crisis."