2010-12-03 / Columnists

East End Matters...

Manpower, Seconds Matter
Commentary By Miriam Rosenberg

In his latest budget move, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed closing 20 fire companies during overnight hours and Engine 328 from Far Rockaway’s Big House may be one of the casualties. This is not exactly the stuff that glad tidings are made of, as we find ourselves in the holiday season.

Mayor Bloomberg recently came out with his latest budget, one that includes $1.6 billion in budget cuts and – as in years past – targets reducing services at several of the city’s firehouses. This time the mayor is calling for the overnight closure of 20 of the city’s firehouses. As written up in this paper’s editorial last week, Engine 328 could very well have a noose around its neck again. As Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer said, “Every time the mayor talks about closing firehouses, the Big House seems to make the list.” This would make the fourth threat of closure since 2008 to the company, which is housed at 1615 Central Avenue in Far Rockaway.

It is true that each time Engine 328 was slated for some kind of closure, it escaped being part of any budget cuts. Yet, there is a chance that their luck and ours could run out. It has been well documented in various articles in The Wave how isolated this peninsula is. The Rockaway area is bordered by Jamaica Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and Nassau County. As Pheffer made clear in 2008, Rosedale is the closest fire company, five miles and 15 minutes away, to even be considered of any help in case of a serious fire.

In 2008 it was the members of Engine 328 themselves who contacted Community Board 14 to warn them of the possible closing of their company during the nighttime shift. Their letter read, in part, “The majority of fires and fatalities occur at night. Not having Engine 328 in service would obviously be dangerous for the Far Rockaway community.”

Far Rockaway has already experienced its share of overnight fires. The most prominent is the Neilson Street fire, which occurred on a windy, ice cold night in February 2007. Fifty units and 250 firefighters fought that blaze, which was called in at 1:29 a.m. and was finally under control at 4:10 a.m. Six civilians and 33 firefighters were treated for minor injuries. Many of those who lived in the building were left homeless.

The FDNY is already short of its desired number of firefighters. According to a September 24 Daily News article, at that time the department was already down 300 firefighters.

The Daily News also reported in that article that the number of fires in the city had increased. Major fires had gone up by more than 3 percent.

This is not the time to be cutting back on New York’s Bravest.

Earlier this year when Bloomberg was also calling for the closure of 20 fire companies, a four-alarm morning fire in Jackson Heights destroyed eight stores in a commercial strip. It took 200 firefighters, almost 20 fire companies – the exact number that the mayor is now proposing to close – from throughout the city to fight the fire that took three hours to get under control.

At that time, Leroy McGinnis, a Queens trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, reportedly said, “For a fire of this scale you need manpower, and you need it here quickly. Seconds matter.”

He added that, “Any closing of a fire company has a ripple effect.”

In Rockaway that ripple effect would be to stretch the peninsula’s remaining fire companies ever more thin. As Pheffer said, “It takes a long time to respond here for other fire departments.”

Then the question is, what if the closest department is not available? What if they are already busy? These are when the circumstances become ripe for tragedies to happen. It is up to Rockaway residents and their elected representatives to make sure that the closure of any fire company on the peninsula does not take place.

While the city must notify the local community board at least 45 days before a fire house is expected to close or reduce hours, we cannot wait for a list of the companies to be made public to let the mayor know we will not let him put lives on the peninsula at risk.

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