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City guts Jamaica firehouse in battle against large rats

Three firefighting units were moved from their Jamaica firehouse last week after losing a battle with large rats that had infested the building, Fire Department officials said.

Hundreds of rats - some the size of small cats - had taken up residence in the walls, ceilings and vents of the house at 153rd Street and Hillside Avenue, forcing the Fire Department to relocate Engine Co. 298, Ladder Co. 127 and Battalion 50 to other stations while the building was gutted, a move one captain called a "necessary evil."

The firefighters, who moved out Aug. 4, have been battling the rats for about a year, but it was only in March that the rodents got the attention of Department officials, an FDNY spokesman said. The problem got so bad that 16 rats were caught in traps in one night, said Stephen Humenesky, Queens trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

The Fire Department had called in a private extermination company to address the problems in recent months, but the wave of rodents had not subsided, a spokesman said.

"For several months the department has had an exterminating company working to resolve the problem at the firehouse," according to a Fire Department statement. "In recent weeks, despite the capture and removal of many rodents, the problem has become exacerbated and now the firehouse is infested."

The source of the rats has yet to be determined, but the pests could be coming from the E and F subway station beneath the firehouse or construction on Queens Boulevard about six blocks away, the spokesman said.

At a news conference Aug. 6, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the plan to gut the building was a last resort measure.

"They've repaired holes in the walls, they replaced doors, they recovered drains," Bloomberg said. "There's some construction work underground that seems to be driving the rats, and I think they finally concluded that the only thing to do was vacate the house for a while, rip out the walls and redo the whole inside, and that's what we're doing."

The construction on the firehouse, which started last week, could take between six and 10 weeks, Humenesky said.

The three companies at the station have been relocated to nearby houses. Engine 298 went about one mile north to 159th Street and Union Turnpike, Ladder 127 moved nearly 1 1/2 miles west to 91st Avenue and 121st Street, while Battalion 50, the command group for southern Queens, was displaced 1 1/2 miles south on Merrick Boulevard. Response times were not expected to be affected, the department spokesman said.

While the firefighters were glad the problem was being addressed, they were upset over having to leave the station, Humenesky said.

"No firefighter ever wants to leave his own house," he said. "It's a second home to them. They spend more time in the firehouse than in their own houses. But we had to get the men out of there and into someplace safe."

Darryl Ramsey, president of Local 768 Health Services Employees - the union which represents pest control workers - said the extermination work should have been given to city workers, not a private company. Ramsey also blasted budget cuts and layoffs that left the local with 30 percent fewer pest control workers even as the number of rats rose, he said in a statement.

"Local 768 Health Services Employees has been saying for some time that the city's rat population is increasing dramatically and has become a serious problem throughout the city," Ramsey said. "The city should also admit that the failure of private contractors to do the job shows that our city workers - our highly qualified and competent city exterminators and pest control aides - are what is needed to alleviate the problem."

Meanwhile, neighbors of the firehouse are worried that the rats may look for a new home.

"They're going to gut the building, but what about the other residents?" asked Patricia Grimsley, owner of Mima's Juice Bar at 153-33 Hillside Ave. "Where are the rats going to go? I'm concerned about it because I have food in here."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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