FDNY Threatens Manpower Cuts Over Sick Days


Posted: 01-14-2008
Updated: 01-14-2008 09:11:16 AM


SUSAN EDELMAN and GINGER ADAMS OTIS
Courtesy of The New York Post

NEW YORK-- The number of firefighters calling in sick each day is soaring - prompting FDNY brass to threaten manpower cuts at 49 of the city's busiest firehouses as soon as next month.

City officials said the harsh move may be necessary to stem what they believe is sick-day abuse - and surging overtime costs paid by the department for replacements.

An average of 651 firefighters a day were out sick in the last six months of 2007 - 7.66 percent of the 8,500-strong force - Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta revealed in a Jan. 2 departmentwide letter.

The spike caused the annual sick-day average to rise to 7.36 percent, up from 7.28 percent in fiscal year 2007 and 7.07 percent in fiscal 2006.

At the current pace, the 12-month average could hit 7.5 percent as soon as February - "thus triggering the staffing reductions," Scoppetta said in the notice, obtained by The Post.

When the rate hits 7.5 percent, Scoppetta has the option of cutting crews from five firefighters to four at 49 engine companies, according to a contract agreement with the unions. If the rate hits 7.6 percent, the cuts are mandatory.

But firefighters say the city is dissing the ill and injured. They warn that cutbacks will make it tougher to fight fires - and will risk lives.

"If the fire commissioner feels compelled to reduce manning, he will compromise the safety of all New Yorkers and every single firefighter," said Uniformed Firefighters Association president Steve Cassidy.

The FDNY last cut crews from five to four in December 2004, when the rate hit 7.5 percent, but restored them in February 2005, when it dipped to 7.49 percent - after a month in which three Bravest were killed and four seriously hurt.

FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon said the recent warning sends a strong message to firefighters and the union: "They should do everything in their power to make sure the medical-leave rate does not increase. We don't want to hit that level, and we don't want to reduce the manning."

Of the city's 197 engine companies, 64 have five-firefighter teams, mostly because of heavy workloads and difficult buildings. The others have four firefighters each.

Jack McDonnell, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said the threatened cutbacks "could have a devastating effect on the safety of firefighters and the general public."

McDonnell said five firefighters - one the pump operator - are needed to effectively stretch the initial hose on a fire.

An FDNY study in the 1980s found that a five-man engine company gets water on a fire 50 percent faster than a four-man company.

"When there's a delay in getting water on a fire, that fire expands exponentially," Cassidy said. "What firefighters then face is dramatically more difficult and more dangerous."

Asked to explain the sick-day increase, Cassidy noted that 2007 was the FDNY's busiest year ever, with firefighters responding to more than 490,000 calls. With more calls come more injuries.

"If they get hurt in the line of duty, that adds to the [sick-leave] statistics," he said.

When firefighters call in sick, they have to report to an FDNY doctor that day or the next. The doctor determines when they can return to work.

But a city official who requested anonymity claimed some firefighters exploit sick leave.

"It's all about overtime, money; that's the story," the official said. When firefighters call in sick, other firefighters get OT to replace them.

Most of the injuries are "strains and sprains," the official said.

Sick leave rose to 8.6 percent in 2002 with many ill from the World Trade Center rescue and recovery, but Gribbon insisted the recent hike was not related to 9/11.

Scoppetta's sick-leave warning came a day before Lt. John Martinson, 40, of Engine 249 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, was killed fighting a blaze on the 14th floor of an apartment building. A dozen others were injured.

Engine 249 is one of the five-firefighter crews.

The FDNY warning infuriated rank-and-file firefighters on an online message board.

"Such bull- - - -," one said. "God forbid you get killed doing your job, you're a hero. But you get hurt doing one of the most dangerous jobs, then you're a zero. I'm truly disgusted."

Republished with permission of The New York Post.

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