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Council allocates $8.3M to reopen boro fire engine

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Citing a citywide spike in emergency response times, City Council leaders made a push last week to bring back six fire engines that closed last year — including one in Astoria — by including $8.3 million in the proposed budget to reopen the facilities.

But Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta stand by their decision to cut costs by closing the engines and said they have no plans to reopen them.

Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) spearheaded the allocation with the support of councilmen whose districts were affected by the closures, including Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) and Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria).

“Last year the administration decided to gamble with the safety of New Yorkers by closing the firehouses,” Miller said last Thursday. “The Council believed otherwise and presented the mayor with creative and feasible options that fell on deaf ears. Today the city’s financial picture is brighter and response times around these closed firehouses are bleaker. It is time to reopen the firehouses and find cost-savings elsewhere.”

The $8.3 million allocated for reopening shuttered firehouses is part of an additional $400 million the Council has proposed for education and social services in its next budget.

Fire and emergency response times have jumped an average 31 seconds in Astoria since Engine 261 on 29th Street closed, according to a report released two weeks ago by Councilman Jeffrey D. Klein (D-Bronx.)

The average response time for all calls in the vicinity of the former engine is 5 minutes, 22 seconds, 26 seconds above the city average and the highest overall response time of the five other neighborhoods in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Manhattan where engines closed, the report said.

Fire officials maintain the closures have not affected response times, attributing the spike to bad weather and the August 2003 blackout.

Citywide, the report found, response times have jumped an average 13 seconds even though Scoppetta had predicted when the engines closed that response times would vary slightly by only one second.

When seconds can mean lives in an emergency, these numbers demand that the mayor and fire commissioner revisit the issue, Gioia and Vallone said.

“Response times are up and lives are being put at risk,” Gioia said. “In the rosiest budget year our city has seen since 9/11, there is simply no reason for Mayor Bloomberg to insist on keeping our firehouses closed. The City Council is putting in the money to reopen all six firehouses — and then the ball will be squarely in the mayor’s court. I pray that he’ll correct his mistake before lives are lost.”

But Bloomburg said last week the firefighters from the closed units were being better used at other stations, and he had no plans to reconsider his decision, The Daily News reported.

Vallone conceded the mayor has reason to be reticent, considering another tough budget year is looming. But the importance of Engine 261, which he said covered several terrorist targets such as the Queensboro Bridge and both New York City airports, should compel him to consider reopening just that facility.

“They may have good arguments for keeping the other fire engines closed, but there’s no argument for 261,” Vallone said. “Each one has to be looked at individually.”

Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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