Fighting fire cuts with fire
by Dawn Lim
Jul 13, 2010 | 6094 views | 1 1 comments | 58 58 recommendations | email to a friend | print
After Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley was appointed chair of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee in January, Bloomberg threatened putting 20 fire companies on the chopping block to save money.

Then, a doomsday budget with cuts proposed by Governor David Paterson threatened another 42 closures.

So Crowley, who had taken on saving the city’s firehouses as a personal political crusade, decided to fight fire with fire.

The councilwoman, who represents Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Richmond Hill, Ridgewood and Woodhaven, launched an all-out campaign, courting supporters and holding rallies in all the boroughs of the city.

Recounting making speeches in “wet, wet days in April,” she said in a recent sit-down interview with this paper, “We didn’t stop holding press conferences and rallies right down to the wire. We were in the Bronx making sure that people were calling 311 and sending letters to the mayor.”

The process of reaching a deal on the budget “was sort of a roller coaster because there was no clear indication that the mayor’s side was willing to negotiate,” recounted Crowley.

“‘We’re waiting and seeing what is going on with Albany’ - we heard that a lot,” Crowley said. “It frustrated me, and I let [the mayor’s office] know that I was very frustrated, and that my colleagues in the City Council were frustrated.”

“The real negotiating happened the last two days,” said Crowley. “They paid attention and they listened and were able to negotiate with the speaker.”

In June, twenty New York City fire engine companies on Bloomberg’s chopping block were saved under a new budget deal that would restore $37 million in Fire Department funding.

The lesson for Crowley? “Do not stop. Do not stop fighting,” she said.

Controversial sparks

Any seasoned firefighter runs the risk of being burned. Crowley’s campaign during the negotiations for the 2011 city budget wasn’t without its controversial moments.

When a press release sent out by Crowley’s office hailed the legislative victory as a personal win, “It would be understood that both the speaker and the mayor might not like that information that was confidential was let out,” admitted Crowley.

“There was someone internally that let out a press release without proper authorization," explained Crowley. "So neither was the language of the press release okay nor was the timing of the press release.

“I have regrets about that,” said Crowley. “But I move forward and we all move forward.”

Critics of Crowley say that she should concentrate on working out how fire protection resources could have been reallocated instead of simply blocking cuts and reaching for the low-hanging fruit.

In defense, Crowley cited a 2009 Columbia University Capstone Project study that estimated that the New York City Fire Department saved $3.1 billion worth of property in the city in 2008.

That same year the FDNY operating budget was about $1.5 billion, Crowley points out. “That points you to a clear 2:1 return on property,” she said. “And that doesn’t even take into consideration other costs like that of losing a home and impact on community.”

New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said that operations would be “severely impacted” if 20 fire companies were closed in testimony during preliminary budget hearings this year. “I think the Fire Department knows best based on their statistics and history,” agreed Crowley.

But Cassano also said that the city experienced only 73 civilian fire deaths in 2009 - the lowest number ever recorded in history. He added that the Fire Department also achieved the fastest average response time for structural fires on record - four minutes and two seconds, prompting critics to say that Crowley is fanning the flames for the sake of fight.

Spreading flames

It doesn’t look like Crowley is going to rest on her laurels anytime soon.

Queens has a higher response time than other boroughs when it comes to fire protection, she said. “So how do we make sure that we’re getting our fastest response in an emergency? That will be part of the goal for next year.”

The bottom line, said Crowley, is “to make sure that we’re not reducing our public safety and security measures.” And for Crowley, it seems that fire safety is a goal that isn’t just limited to one borough.

“I believe that the Fire Department goes hand in hand with the Police Department,” she said. “You never know when the next terrorist attack will happen. It can be in one of our airports. It can be in Queens. It can be in one of the expressways that connect boroughs to other boroughs or to other places within the state.”

Who knows where the fire will move next?

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anonymous
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July 17, 2010
I wonder how Christine Quinn is gonna handle this......