Ranks Thin in Hazard Unit of Fire Dept.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, when 11 members of the New York City Fire Department's highly trained hazardous materials unit perished, there was widespread agreement, from outside experts to city officials, that the elite emergency unit needed not only to be rebuilt but also expanded, perhaps even doubled in size to deal with future disasters.

But nearly two years after the World Trade Center was destroyed, the department actually has fewer firefighters in the unit, which deals with biological, chemical or radiological attacks, than it did before Sept. 11. Some 14 of the 35 positions in the city's one formal hazardous materials unit are vacant, according to a current member, and the notion of adding a fully trained second unit appears remote.

Fire Department officials, while saying they still desire to expand the ranks of the specialized unit, said they had decided to try to improve the basic hazardous materials training of all members of the department so they could assist in handling another terrorist attack. They said a lack of money was one reason they had failed to expand the number of fully trained hazardous materials specialists.

Some experts inside and outside the department have criticized its overall response as inadequate. They say the idea of providing fewer hours of training to a greater number of firefighters is a dangerous mistake, and they say the department's top officials have simply failed to create a real plan for recruiting men and women to the specialized unit.

"There's really no clear concept on what the plan is," said a current firefighter in the unit, who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Traditionally, it has always been difficult for the department to lure firefighters away from the dramatic work of fighting fires for the sometimes more tedious work of studying chemistry and the operations of gas-reading meters. And some firefighters say the high death toll at the trade center gave them pause about joining any specialized unit that would almost certainly respond to another attack.

But the department says its efforts to add a second formal unit of elite hazardous materials specialists have been hampered most critically by the fact that much of the federal money available to the department, now and in the future, cannot be used to finance units that become permanent parts of the department's work force. The money