Firefighter Cuts May Come Soon

By William Murphy
Staff Writer, Newsday

May 31, 2003, 6:08 PM EDT

A second round of cuts in firefighting service could come in the next few days as the number of firefighters on some engine companies may be reduced from five to four.

The firefighters union obtained a preliminary injunction barring the city from making the cuts, but a judge in Brooklyn last week ordered the union to post a $4.5-million bond if it wants to keep the injunction in place while its lawsuit against the city is pending.

Union sources said it was unlikely the union would risk its financial stability by posting the bond, so getting the injunction lifted should be a formality for the city.

The city corporation counsel's office said Friday that the union would have five days after formally getting the judge's written order to post the bond.

The Fire Department was noncommittal on Friday, saying it would "consider" the staff reductions on the 49 engine companies after the court action is cleared up.

The Fire Department has 197 engine companies, which are usually the first units on the scene at emergencies.

There are now 61 engine units with five firefighters, but the department wants to reduce that number to 11 companies under terms of an arbitration agreement on staffing that is tied to the sick rate for firefighters.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association claimed the sick rate is higher than the threshold because of the loss of 343 department members on Sept. 11, 2001, and lingering health problems among firefighters who worked at Ground Zero.

The union said it would continue the underlying lawsuit against the reductions, which could come barely a week after the city eliminated six engine companies. That move resulted in the closing of three firehouses.

Union officials said privately they wondered whether the city would run the risk of reducing staffing, posing the risk of injuries or death to firefighters, and then wind up losing the case after all.

"Please realize we did not create this recipe for death and destruction," union president Stephen Cassidy said in a message to his members late Thursday.

The union had no public comment Friday, but Cassidy said in his message that the planned staff reductions would leave the department with so few firefighters on any particular shift that other firehouses would have to be closed temporarily if even a few firefighters got sick or were injured during their tour.

Another possibility is that ladder companies, which have five firefighters, would have to operate with four, Cassidy said.

Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said the department would continue to operate 11 engine companies with five firefighters, lessening the need for closings because one firefighter from each of those units could be reassigned to a short-staffed unit.