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About a dozen fire marshals gathered Friday with Queens elected officials to protest the Fire Department's plans to close the marshal base at Fort Totten, a move they said would encourage arson by eliminating the only fire investigation office in the borough.
City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who organized the rally at the fort, said the Totten fire marshal base was scheduled for closing at the end of the month. Fire Department spokesman Robert Calise said there was no set date for the proposed closure, but it probably would go forward.
Whenever the actual closing date, the marshals and elected officials predicted a surge in suspicious blazes without a local office to quickly determine their cause.
"Everyone who wants to get rid of their house and cars are just going to burn them for insurance money," said Robert Rostkowski, a supervising fire marshal based at Totten. "People are going to get away with arson."
Following the recent closures of marshal bases in the Bronx and Manhattan due to budget cuts, the Fort Totten fire marshal base has been responsible for investigating fires in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan north of 59th Street.
The elimination of the Queens office would leave the Brooklyn base responsible for investigating fires in the five boroughs with a staff of just 77 marshals and 23 supervisors, Fire Marshal James Kelty said.
Kelty said the Fire Department employed 173 fire marshals and 38 supervisors before Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office.
"What other city agency could be reduced by that number and still perform an adequate job?" Avella asked. "The mayor has to be convinced that this cut is totally unacceptable."
At present 25 marshals and six supervisors are based at Totten. If Totten were to close, 20 marshals would be reassigned as firefighters, and the remaining staff would be moved to the Brooklyn office, Rostkowski said.
He noted that the increased response times for fire marshals coming from Brooklyn to the other four boroughs would hamper fire investigations.
"A lot of evidence is going to be compromised because of the delay," he said.
City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), chairman of the Council's Finance Committee, said at the rally that keeping the Totten base open would cost the city less than $1 million a year.
"I think they can keep this office open under their present resources," he said.
Ed Burke, fire marshal representative of the Uniformed Firefighters' Association, said fire marshals were an easy target for budget cuts because they are not a visible presence in neighborhoods the way firehouses are.
"Fire marshals are the best-kept secret in the Fire Department," Burke said. "There's nobody here to protest for the marshals."
Burke said 25 percent of fires already are not investigated, a number that would go up to 50 percent if Totten's marshals were reassigned.
The moving of fire marshals even farther from the Bronx also worried Robert Nolan, budget director for Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion.
Arson was endemic in the Bronx decades ago, when landlords burnt their decrepit buildings to collect insurance money.
"We can't go back to the '70s and '80s," Nolan said. "We were comfortable that the Queens base would take care of us."
Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.
©2003 Community Newspaper Group
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