NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Only five years ago, the lowest level of on-duty fire fighters protecting the City of New Rochelle was 29. Due to half a decade of decimating public safety cuts, that number has continued to erode. If the proposed 2013 city budget goes forward as is, that minimum will be 24 New Rochelle Fire Department fire fighters – a 17 ¼ percent reduction in fire fighters in less than 5 years.
The NRFD staffing was cut to the bone when minimum staffing was reduced to 27 fire fighters in 2008. To propose reducing that number even further for a city of over 77,000 people is unfathomable, as the fire department is already stretched too thin.
Under the new proposal, 27 fire fighters will be scheduled for duty each shift. If fire fighters are sick or injured, additional manpower will only be called in when the number of personnel drops below 24.
These cuts could result in fire department brown-outs, eliminating a fire engine from service when just one firefighter is out. Will it be the firehouse that responds to your home on the day that you need them?
On Tuesday, December 11, the New Rochelle City Council will vote on the proposed 2013 budget. Its targeted budget extraction from the fire department is $300,000. That’s a savings of less than 1/5 of 1 percent of the city’s proposed overall $153.6 million dollar budget. The city council needs to carefully consider the consequences of further crippling an already understaffed first responder agency.
As a veteran fire fighter who has seen far too many tragedies, it all sounds like a game of Russian roulette.
Fiscal integrity for our city is critical, but the dollar savings of cuts to our fire department would amount to just a single penny per day, per resident! If even one New Rochelle business is wiped out by a fire or one person dies because the city didn’t have enough manpower on duty to respond quickly enough to an emergency, the city would have rolled the dice and lost in order to save $300,000.
While the decision now rests squarely on the shoulders of the city council, the recommendations for these drastic cuts come from a report by a citizen’s advisory committee, a group of citizens without public safety or government management experience. Their report even states that “Any significant change in the Fire Department’s service portfolio, personnel levels and/or response capability must be preceded by careful analysis so that risks can be clearly understood…”
The rhetoric we’ve all been fed is, “we are simply cutting overtime for the NRFD - that’s all”. But in fact, this is a direct correlation to the Department being understaffed already. Since 2008, the NRFD’s ranks have been decimated with a twelve percent cut in the total number of fire fighters, down from 168 to 148 with six cadets currently in training, complements of a federal grant. It’s a fact that due to lack of hiring in recent years, an astounding 44 percent of the NRFD is currently eligible for retirement.
If the purpose of government is to protect citizens and their property first, how can it be that protecting New Rochelle citizens is now nearly 20 percent less vital than it was to our city 5 years ago?
Instead, let’s cut government bureaucracy and waste before eliminating lifesaving services that directly contribute to the city’s livability. The NRFD has already been cut too deep. The city has chipped away at the bone of New Rochelle’s safety framework for years leaving nothing to give but the safety of New Rochelle and its residents.
Byron Gray is president of the New Rochelle Uniformed Fire Fighters Association Local 273.