Council Speaker Fans The Flames, To Reopen Firehouses
Henry J. Stern
While the 2004 presidential campaign is well under way, the 2005 mayoral campaign is nudging along right behind.
The gradually warming local political climate is illustrated by Speaker Gifford Miller’s press conference calling for the reopening of six firehouses closed last year. Mr. Miller is right on one point: the city can afford to reopen the firehouses. The question is whether or not this is a wise expenditure, and what will the city be unable to afford if it reopens the firehouses.
The call for reopening is a siren song. First, people do not want to burn to death or lose their homes or jobs, and anything that makes those possibilities less likely, even remotely so, is appealing. Second, the presence of firefighters, usually strong young men, in a community is reassuring even when they are not fighting fires. Many little boys want to become firemen when they grow up, and thousands do. One of my nephews is a firefighter, although not in New York City. Third, the presence of a city facility in a neighborhood gives people the sense that the city supports the community.
The underlying issue the Fire Department faces is the enormous decline in severe fires, since buildings are by and large no longer built out of wood. Many fire stations were built over 80 years ago, when the city was much more combustible. Changes in construction materials and installation of sprinkler system could have prevented the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, where 146 people, mostly young women, died. In that case, fire doors were locked and many jumped out of windows. The site of that fire, the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, is now a national historic landmark.
The worst fire in the city’s history was the burning of the steamboat General Slocum on June 15, 1904, where about 1,400 people, mostly women and young children, were burned to death or drowned in Hell Gate. The centennial of this tragedy is 10 weeks away, and the city should hold an appropriate memorial observance.
The number of civilian fire deaths has steadily declined over the years. The number of structural fires has fallen even more sharply. As a result, we simply do not need the firefighting strength we currently maintain. Mayor Giuliani, who was a great friend of the Fire Department, found them additional work as first responders in medical emergencies. He succeeded in merging the Emergency Medical Service (EMS), which operates ambulances, into the Fire Department.
The number of firehouses should have been reduced many years ago, but no mayor dared to do it, not even the good ones. The disaster of Sept. 11, 2001, in which 343 firefighters lost their lives, many through communications failures, created enormous sympathy for and goodwill towards firefighters.
Unfortunately, a few recent instances of drunkenness, violence and drug use at firehouses illustrate the timeless problem of human beings misbehaving when they have too little to do.
The exploitation of the firehouse closings for personal political advantage is a sample of what the next two years will bring. It is not evil for a candidate to exploit an issue; it is politics, the essence of democracy. There is no law against pandering, and in any event, one man’s pandering is another man’s truth-telling.
The firehouse issue is, however, symbolic to both sides. To the politicians and the unions, it is a cruel decision that could possibly kill people, and certainly will result in fewer jobs and less union dues. To those who have to pay the city’s bills and balance its books, this is a small and harmless reduction to a bloated service, indicating fiscal prudence and the knowledge that the city must economize in order to avoid disaster. The city treasury is not a bottomless pit.
Awareness of this bite of reality is more common in executives, who must balance budgets, than in city and state legislators who are often more willing to tax, to borrow and to spend. That is one way for a legislator to become an executive. Then, he can worry.
The mayor’s position may be more meritorious, but he is already the mayor.
The speaker’s position is probably more popular with voters. However, spenders have a moral, but not a legal responsibility to offer alternate reductions when they demand increases. The municipal budget is not a zero-sum game. In fact, the chickens have already come home to roost, but we keep borrowing eggs from the one basket of taxation in which we have put them.
Henry Stern was NYC Parks Commissioner for fifteen years and a Councilmember for nine. He is founder and director of NYCivic, a good government group. He can be reached at: email@example.com