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LIC firehouse, community hope to prevail in lawsuit

A still-pending lawsuit fighting the closure of Engine Co. 261 in Long Island City and five other firehouses across the city has lent a glimmer of hope to a battle that appeared lost when the fire company shut down two weekends ago.

City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside) made oral arguments before Judge James Starkey in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on May 28 at a hearing focused on whether or not the city had given adequate notice of the company's closing to Roosevelt Island, where it serves as a backup.

Although the judge has yet to formally rule on whether the city has to reopen the firehouse, he advised the city to give proper written notice by sundown that day, Gioia said.

"Today Mayor Bloomberg was told you have to play by the rules like everybody else," Gioia said in a news release. "In its rush to close firehouses, the city ignored the simple words of the charter, our city's constitution."

Although the city charter requires 45-day notice be given to communities before a local firehouse is closed, Manhattan's Community Board 8 and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) never received notice even though they represent Roosevelt Island, which has no firehouse of its own, Gioia said.

The hearing was part of a larger lawsuit filed by a coalition of elected officials in mid-May to oppose the planned shutdown of eight firehouses to help close the city's budget gap. Bloomberg reduced that number to six at the 11th hour when the state Legislature approved a major aid package for the city, saving Engine Co. 293 in Woodhaven, where the mayor said response times would have climbed above the city average had the company closed.

In addition to the improper notification issues, the lawsuit alleges that a formal environmental review is required before the city can close a firehouse, which was never performed. It also claims the city's action was arbitrary and capricious, since the blue ribbon commission's decision to close the firehouses was preordained by the mayor's comments that closure was inevitable.

Starkey is expected to issue a decision in the upcoming weeks on whether the city must reopen the six firehouses, which closed May 25.

A coalition of elected officials sent a letter to Bloomberg Tuesday imploring him "to reverse this ill-considered decision."

"Response times to Roosevelt Island and much of Long Island City will be increased considerably," the letter read. "With every second of additional response time placing citizens at increased risk, we regard this as an unacceptable compromise of public safety."

The night after Gioia's arguments in court, a candlelight vigil was held outside the firehouse 37-20 29th St., where Ladder 116 is still based. Community members are ready to keep fighting.

"I think there might be a chance on this," said Jerry Walsh, the president of the Dutch Kills Civic Association, which represents the neighborhood that the firehouse covered. "The mayor, whoever he is listening to, is giving him bad advice. I think there may be a chance he might be able to reopen the firehouse if he gives it some thought."

A Daily News story said an internal Fire Department memo instructed remaining engine companies in the six neighborhoods where houses closed not to serve as first responders to medical emergencies, which they have done since 1995 - typically arriving two minutes faster than ambulances.

"That's pretty scary," Walsh said. "That's different than the rest of the city now. We're being treated differently and you're not supposed to do that, especially in the city of New York."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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