FDNY Aided By Timing of Blackout

By William Murphy
Staff Writer

August 19, 2003

The blackout caught everyone by surprise, but if it was going to happen it happened at just the right time for the Fire Department.

When the lights went out shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday, the Fire Department ordered everyone getting off work at 6 p.m. to remain on duty.

With the new shift coming on and the old shift still working the department had 1,000 firefighters available that it normally would not have had, according to union and department officials.

The department staffed 20 spare engine rigs and 8 spare ladder rigs with the extra firefighters, and they were thrown into one of the busiest days in department history.

The extra strength was needed. The department responded to 71 serious fires -- those requiring an all-hands response of 12 rigs and 60 firefighters -- between the time the lights went out shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. Friday, when most power had been restored, the department said.

It also fielded 20 units of two or three firefighters in sedans or sports utility vehicles to respond to reports of people trapped in elevators and other non-fire emergencies.

In any other similar period of time, the department could have expected anywhere from 7 to 15 serious fires, department spokesman Dave Billig said yesterday.

Billig said the department has now attributed 34 of the 71 serious fires during the blackout to the careless use of candles, including an elderly man who suffered a heart attack, apparently brought on by smoke inhalation, at a single-room-occupancy hotel west of Times Square.

"Had the blackout occured after 6 p.m., the department would not have had 1,000 extra personnel available so they could add the 58 extra units that were put into service to respond to emergencies," the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, Stephen Cassidy, said in a statement yesterday.

The Fire Department also had gotten a time edge on Sept. 11, 2001 when the first plane struck the World Trade Center about 15 minutes before the 9 a.m. shift change.

Hundreds of firefighters who were not yet on duty jumped on their rigs with the incoming shift and rushed to Lower Manhattan, giving the Fire Department a much stronger response that it would normally have.

Police officials said yesterday they were still compiling final crime statistics for the blackout. Departments figures for the week showed crime to be down both for the year to date, and the week compared with the same week in 2002.

For the week ending Sunday, crime was down .83 percent from the same week last year. It was down 7.7 percent from Jan. 1 to Sunday compared with last year, according to police data.

Staff writer Melanie Lefkowitz contributed to this story.