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By Aline Reynolds | Osama bin Laden’s death and the rapidly-approaching 10th anniversary of 9/11 is causing Downtown community members to become increasingly anxious about their safety.
The last thing they need to hear is that a neighborhood firehouse, situated only blocks away from Ground Zero, is slated to close.
Engine Four is one of two fire companies in Lower Manhattan, and 20 citywide, that would shutter if Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 executive budget passes as is. The city wouldn’t disclose a timetable on the possible closures.
It is the third year in a row that the company is on the chopping block, according to District One City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who organized a press conference at 42 South St., Engine Four’s home, last Wednesday to contest the closures.
“We are going to say loud and strong right here that we won’t allow the administration to close any of the firehouses in our city,” said Chin.
Engine Four, in particular, has an “invaluable” counterterrorism and decontamination unit, said the Councilmember, that would help protect Lower Manhattan in the event of another terrorist attack.
Community Board 1 Chairperson Julie Menin called the threat to close down Engine Four “a slap in the face to our community.”
“We’re the number one terrorist target in the world, and the fact that they’d even think about closing this firehouse is absolutely wrong,” Menin said.
Menin also said the closure would pose a financial security threat to people nationwide, noting the $83 billion in economic losses the city incurred from 9/11. C.B. 1’s Quality of Life Committee drafted a resolution that strongly opposes the elimination of Engine Four, along with Ladder 8, at 14 North Moore St. in Tribeca.
Closing the firehouses would “jeopardize the new school [at One Peck Slip] and dozens of landmarked buildings on Governors Island that are required to be protected under national and city historic district designation,” according to the resolution. Regardless of city budget constraints, the resolution continues, the safety and protection of citizens must not be compromised.
“To lose this fire company in one of the most financially influential parts of the city is fiscal insanity,” echoed Richard Alles, deputy chief of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. “We all know that we’re expecting another terrorist attack. It’s not a question of ‘if’ — it’s a question of ‘when.’”
Community members are equally concerned about firefighters’ attention to accidents in nearby residences. In the early 1990s, Engine Four firefighters responded to a blaze at Susan Dacks’s apartment building at 3 Hanover Sq. that, while destroying an entire floor of apartments, did not result in a single death.
“Its closeness really saved us,” said Dacks of Engine Four. “To lose [one of the] last remaining firehouses in this district would be terrible. I wouldn’t feel half as safe.”
The Lower East Side and Chinatown have suffered from a disproportionate number of fires in recent years, according to Chris Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, a community service organization based in Chinatown. A blaze in the attic of St. James Church on the Lower East Side nearly decimated the 183-year-old edifice last January, for example, while a Grand St. fire last spring displaced more than 200 people. A.A.F.E. secured temporary housing for displaced victims like Stephen Vendola.
“I think it’s disgraceful that they’re cutting down these very important functions that are needed to help save people,” said Vendola. “When you’re in [a fire], you don’t know what to do. At least there’s a guidance here.”
Shutting down fire stations is “absolutely the wrong decision,” said Jenifer Rajkumar, a 28-year-old attorney who lives in Gateway Plaza. “I think there is a great possibility more lives would be lost, more people would be harmed, and response times would increase.”
Increased response times to fires could endanger both firefighters and fire victims that become exposed to larger flames, explained District 30 Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the City Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, which is in negotiations with Bloomberg’s office to try and stop the cuts.
The $2 billion the city has poured into updating the 9-1-1 emergency service, Crowley noted, does not eliminate the need for firehouses. “The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t matter how fancy our 9-1-1 system is if there are no firefighters and firehouses to respond in the time of an emergency,” she said.
Beyond saving lives, the city’s fire companies, Crowley said, have saved more than $3 billion in property losses — about twice the amount the city spends annually to operate them.
Some officials believe the financial benefits the city would reap from keeping the 20 fire companies open would greatly outweigh the estimated $40 million it takes to run them.
“For this administration to just say, ‘we need to slash $40 million from the F.D.N.Y.,’ and not realize that there’s a negative impact on [Bloomberg’s] economy, indicates they don’t understand. The reality is, each fire company saves [the city] more money in terms of tax revenue and property damage than it costs to operate,” said Stephen Cassidy, president of the International Association of Firefighters, a nationwide local firefighter’s union.
Al Hagan, president of the U.F.O.A., said Mayor Bloomberg should reallocate funds devoted to “wasteful” city services, such as bike lanes, CityTime (a web-based employee tracking system) and automatic vehicle locators and instead direct them to the F.D.N.Y.
“The mayor wants bike lanes — do you want another 100 yards of bike lane, or do you want fire houses?” he asked the crowd at the press conference.
“Fire houses!” the crowd exclaimed.