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Closings of Six Fire Stations Touch a Nerve in New York

May 25, 2003|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — They still hadn't begun packing up the East Harlem firehouse by the start of this weekend. What do you do with 115 years of memorabilia? Who gets the Christmas photographs and the league trophies and the plaques honoring firefighters who died in the line of duty? And what do you do with the iron frying pan blackened by years of feeding the men of Engine Company No. 36?

The East 125th Street company is one of six in New York being shut down at 9 a.m. today. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has ordered them closed as part of an effort to plug the city's $3.8-billion deficit. But the internal angst and community anger around closing fire companies -- especially after the city's faith in its security was shaken by the World Trade Center attack -- have made New Yorkers wonder whether it's worth the savings of $8 million.

"Is it really worth the pain this is causing, especially in our minority community?" said Jim Murray, a retired Teamster who has been collecting signatures for a petition to appeal to the mayor to save No. 36. The Harlem fire company, in a landmark building that dates to 1888, is being closed in part because it is only one block from another firehouse. But Murray insists the area needs the coverage it has had: "It's worth the money if one truck can get to a fire even a few minutes faster. Two or three minutes can save a life."

Months of similar emotional appeals to City Hall -- as well as weekly prayer vigils, union rallies and lawsuits -- did not deter the mayor and fire commissioner from ensuring the department would make these cuts as part of reducing its budget overall by about $50 million. They also laid off civilian employees, reduced overtime and cut the arson investigative team by half.

The mayor had planned to close eight firehouses, but he decided Monday to spare two firehouses after the state Legislature came up with additional funds for the city's budget. In addition to the Manhattan company, there are now four in Brooklyn and one in Queens scheduled to close today.

Steve Cassidy, the firefighters union president, had suggested to the mayor and a blue ribbon commission that as an alternative to the closings the city invite corporate sponsors to carry the annual $1.3-million cost of keeping each house open. The mayor rejected the idea, saying it would create an unfair advantage for sponsored fire companies if the fiscal crisis necessitated more closings.

"It is believed, after an extensive analysis of data and in the experience of the chiefs of the department, that these closures will have the least impact on our ability to respond to fires," Frank Gibbons, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said Friday.

In a brief interview, Gibbons said that more than six months of tumult over the closings had left nobody satisfied: "This is never easy, especially for the men. It's a second home. There's great loyalty, great affinity. But we're in a fiscal crisis."

Although the 26 men of No. 36 have been reassigned to new companies across the city, those who sat around with their coffee and doughnuts Friday morning glumly discussed their future.

"After 9/11 we were untouchable," Lt. Ken Durante said, speaking of a city firefighting corps that had lost 343 men in a day. "Now we're one part of a budget, just another number."

The men around the table also debated another proposal by the mayor that is under consideration to reduce the number of firefighters on a ladder truck from five to four. "They're breaking us up and breaking us down," firefighter Drew Kinash said before looking around the table and adding, "I know more about some of these guys than I do about my own family."

City Council members and activists in the communities where the companies are closing have been campaigning since November to keep them open. In Harlem, for example, a group called "Save Engine Company 36" created an eponymous Web site, made up posters, collected signatures, lobbied politicians and held 36 prayer vigils in front of the Romanesque red firehouse wedged between a dental office and a retirement home on Harlem's main drag. The company covers a neighborhood that is as diverse as it is busy. There are methadone clinics, homeless shelters, gentrified apartment complexes, superstores and bus, train and subway depots.

"We've responded to it all -- heart attacks, gas leaks and major fires," Durante said, shaking his head as he looked around at dozens of photographs of firefighters, past and present, in their gear. The plan was for the 26 current members to show up at the house today for a final goodbye and to take home their boots, hats, jackets and other belongings.

And the plaques, photographs and that frying pan?

"We'll figure something out," Durante said, shrugging his shoulders. "I just don't know what yet."

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