By Julie Shapiro
City Councilmember Alan Gerson thought he had secured a coup for Lower Manhattan: During the city’s budget negotiations, the Fire Dept. promised to restore services at firehouses across the city.
Pleased, Gerson announced last week that two Downtown firehouses, Engine 4 on South St. and the station on Governors Island, would both reopen full-time.
But as it turned out, Gerson did not secure as much as he thought. While Engine 4 and other firehouses around the city received a reprieve, the Governors Island firehouse will remain closed, F.D.N.Y. said this week.
“I’m furious,” Gerson told Downtown Express Wednesday. “The Fire Dept. is playing games with words and lives.”
In January, the city closed the Governors Island firehouse and cut the nighttime hours of four other companies, including Engine 4. This spring, the mayor proposed further cuts that would have closed Engine 4 and others entirely.
During the negotiations for the 2010 budget, Gerson said the Fire Dept. agreed to provide “full coverage” at all the houses that were previously cut. Gerson thought “full coverage” on Governors Island meant reopening the firehouse full-time, but the Fire Dept. says that is not necessary.
Governors Island has no residents, but thousands of people visit on summer weekends and an artist residency program and a high school will soon bring even more people to the island year-round.
Until six months ago, three firefighters were posted on the island all the time. Since January, firefighters only staff the firehouse when more than 100 people are on the island. The rest of the time, first responders are a boat ride away, and the city estimates that it could take them half an hour to arrive.
“There should be no part of the city that is without emergency coverage,” Gerson said. “We’re going to continue to fight this.”
Steve Ritea, F.D.N.Y. spokesperson, said the island firehouse was used very infrequently, with only 12 calls in three years and no major fires.
The Governors Island firehouse closure will save almost $600,000 this year, Ritea said.
Elizabeth Case, a research associate with the Governors Island Alliance, was surprised to hear of the city’s decision.
“That’s incredible if they were to restore everything else and leave Governors Island out in the cold,” Case said. “It’s really unfortunate.”
Case is particularly concerned about not having firefighters on the island during construction and demolition operations in the off-season.
Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said it’s shortsighted of the city to put the island’s many wooden, historic buildings at risk of fire.
“Without those buildings, you’ve lost a lot of the draw of the island,” Breen said.
The absence of firefighters also poses a risk to the security guards posted on the island at night, who would not have fast access to emergency medical care, Gerson said.
The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corp., which runs the island, deferred questions to the city.
Pat Moore, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Quality of Life Committee, was glad to hear that the city was restoring service at Engine 4. She and others had worried that response times would increase after the city closed Engine 4 at night. Ladder 15, which shares the house, remained open full-time, and now Engine 4 is returning to full-time operation as well.
Moore also said she understood the city’s decision to only have firefighters on Governors Island when many people are there.
“We’ve all got to give up something in this economy,” Moore said. “We love the beautiful architecture [on Governors Island] and we would love to keep it, but what’s more important is people’s lives.”