Fire Department units responding to emergencies in Long Island City actually arrived on scene faster in the two months since Engine Co. 261 was closed than during the same two months in 2002 when it was operating, department statistics released last Thursday show.
But the Fire Department admitted it had erred in explaining how those numbers were compiled, raising doubts about how accurately they reflected the time required to begin fighting a fire.
The statistics put together by the department measured the time interval between the first call for help and the arrival of a Fire Department vehicle at the scene, not the arrival of a fire engine as the department previously maintained. Only fire engines are equipped to spray water on fires.
The misunderstanding arose after Francis Gribbon, a Fire Department spokesman, responding to a question at a news conference last week, told a reporter the numbers represented response times for the first engines to arrive at the scene.
Gribbon admitted the statistics included first-arriving vehicles of any kind, but added that engines were the first on scene in most cases. In the data pertaining to the six closed firehouses, he said, battalion cars (which are not equipped to fight fires) were first on scene only 4 percent of the time.
He pointed out that first-unit arrival was the standard of comparison the department has always used.
"This is not a departure from how the department has traditionally looked at response times," he said. "We were comparing apples and apples."
According to the FDNY, those response time numbers improved for Long Island City and parts of Roosevelt Island (also covered by Engine Co. 261) from 5:18 minutes in June and July 2002 to 5:13 minutes in the same period this year. In the other five areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan with shuttered firehouses, average response time went up anywhere from 11 seconds to 47 seconds.
"The changes we have seen during the past two months are, for the most part, below our estimated increases, or in line with what we expected based on the modeling we did before selecting these companies for closure," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta.
But fire unions were quick to attack the statistics. Uniformed Firefighters Association spokesman Tom Butler said any measurement based on the first-arriving vehicle was meaningless, because that vehicle could be an engine, a ladder truck or even a battalion car.
More important, he said Fire Department written regulations stipulated fire-fighting operations could not begin until two engines and one ladder truck were on the scene.
The discrepancy is especially important in Long Island City, where Ladder Co. 116 continues to operate from the same building that once also housed Engine Co. 261. The first-arriving unit, therefore, would not have had to travel any further in many cases. But the second and third arriving units, on the other hand, may have had to make longer trips from other firehouses.
Engine Co. 260, for example, located at 11-15 37th Ave. in Long Island City, made 53 percent more runs in June 2003 than it did in June 2002, when part of its load would have been handled by Engine Co. 261, the UFA said. According to statistics provided by the union, Engine Co. 260 answered 238 calls in June vs. 156 a year ago.
Department representatives also pointed out that all but two of the areas measured still had response times below the citywide average of 4:50 minutes.
But Long Island City was one of the two communities with response times still above the citywide average.
Area residents, community leaders and elected officials have fought the closing of Engine Co. 261 since Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his cost-saving plan in April.
"I think they have egg on their face," said Gioia. "This has been a bad idea from the beginning. No matter how you cook the books, it remains a bad idea."
Earlier this summer, Gioia argued the case against the closures before Judge James Starkey in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, winning a technical victory for Long Island City. Starkey said the city had violated its charter when it failed to serve notice to representatives of Roosevelt Island, for which Engine Co. 261 was responsible.
A hearing slated for Friday to determine the appropriate remedy for the city's misstep was postponed and rescheduled for Aug. 15.
Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.
©2003 Community News Group
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