From Today's New York Daily News 11/8/02:

A city proposal to close 25 firehouses overnight would take firefighters off duty during the hours when most deadly blazes occur, the Daily News has learned.

Last year, nighttime fires claimed 82 of the 101 civilian fire victims throughout the city. The year before, 87 of the 125 people killed in fires died between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m.

"A bean counter looks at fire activity and sees there are more fires, more emergencies during the day," said Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "But your most critical and life-threatening fires take place when people are sleeping."

After a week of inquiries by the Daily News and fierce behind-the-scenes debate among fire officials, the overnight closure proposal was taken off the table yesterday ? at least for now, high-level sources said.

Sources said the decision was made for safety reasons and added that officials now are leaning toward shutting seven engine companies and a ladder company outright. The closings would affect every borough except Staten Island.

Staffing at some 50 other engine companies also could be slashed, sources said. "There's been no final decision on any specific cuts at this time," said Frank Gribbon, Fire Department spokesman.

Life-and-death decision

The News' analysis of FDNY data raises questions about whether the department, still struggling to recover from the 9/11 terror attacks, could shoulder the budget cuts without hurting its lifesaving services.

The $75 million retrenchment would be the largest financial hit the Fire Department has taken since the 1970s fiscal crisis. Other budget proposals under consideration include reducing staffing at engine companies from five firefighters to four, cutting the number of fire marshals by almost two-thirds, freezing civilian hires, aggressively tracking down people who have not paid ambulance fees and increasing permit fees.

Some of the ideas, though, could touch off legal battles.

Mayor Bloomberg has said he would like to avoid shuttering engine companies. But nothing is off the table as he moves to close a $1 billion budget gap by the end of June and a shortfall of as much as $6 billion in the next fiscal year.

Medical emergencies

Although neighborhoods are not burning to the ground, as some were three decades ago, firefighters now rush to many more medical emergencies. As a result, they respond to roughly the same number of calls ? about 437,000 last year, compared with about 460,000 in 1977, the peak of the so-called war years for the department.

"Are we going to be a rescue and emergency service? Or are we essentially going to become a mortuary service because we won't get to people on time?" asked Robert Ungar, lawyer for the Uniformed EMTs and Paramedics Union.

The timing of the potential FDNY cuts comes as an affront to many firefighters and community groups who say more money is needed, not less.

"We were not prepared before 9/11 and we are certainly not prepared now," said Susan Berkowitz, founder of the nonprofit group FDNY is Worth It. "We need an equipped and ready Fire Department. We deserve it."

FDNY data show the number of serious fires is down about 35% since the mid-1970s, and fire-related civilian deaths fell to the lowest level since the city began keeping such records in 1946.

But those numbers can be misleading because the nearly 2,800 people who died at Ground Zero ? including 343 FDNY members ? are not included in last year's fatality count.

"What does it take to get people to wake up ? 6,000 people to die?" Gorman asked. "We think it's outrageous that they would even discuss cutting any level of fire protection."

Adding to concerns, the loss of veteran firefighters at the World Trade Center and a wave of retirements have drained experience from the department.

More than twice as many firefighters left the job in the first 10 months of this year as in the same period last year, up from 424 to 968.

And a decision to delay the FDNY's latest class of rookies to save about $1.6 million reminded some of the 1970s, when layoffs and a hiring freeze cut the number of firefighters from 14,235 in 1970 to 11,466 in 1979.

The city has about 11,500 firefighters.

Marian Fontana, whose husband, a firefighter, died at the Trade Center, said cutbacks would be akin to "pulling back troops in the middle of a battle."

"It's really rubbing salt in an already wounded Fire Department," said Fontana, president of the 9/11 Widows' and Victims' Families Association. Originally published on November 7, 2002