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FDNY Response Times Can Mean the Difference Between Life and Death

A look at the FDNY's response times to a fire, in light of the pending budget cuts

With the lowest uniformed FDNY force in 40 years projected for the 2011, the threat of fire house closings by the Bloomberg Administration has put many New Yorkers on edge, fearing what this means for public safety.

For firefighters, this means an increase in the response time for an adequate number of fire trucks to arrive on the scene-- a very precarious situation in a city where the difference between 2-5 minutes can mean the difference between life and death.

One of the main reasons why fire response time is so important is because of "Flashover.’" Flashover is when the immediate area surrounding the fire becomes so hot and full of fumes that the air literally ignites what ever is around it, causing the fire to grow exponentially in a matter of seconds.

Mike Donovan, a former fire house captain from Brooklyn, said that from the beginning of a fire, Flashover can happen anywhere from a minute to a minute and a half in.

The city's Independent Budget Office has predicted that the total size of the FDNY will be 10,282 by next year. The lowest period before this was in 1989 when the total uniformed force size was 10,630.

Mayor Bloomberg is preparing to close 20 firehouses and units across the city, two of which serve Bed-Stuy, Engine 233 at 25 Rockaway Avenue and Engine 218 at 650 Hart Street.

The Mayor cites these closures as “painful” but says the plan will save the City $55 million.

Each fire house carries one to two units, usually a ladder and/or an engine. Engine 218 is a single unit house and would be fully shut down if closures happen. If Engine 233 closes, there will only be a ladder unit at the house.

"There are a lot of budget cuts on the table this year. It will be hard to stop this round of closing." said Phil DiPaolo, director of the New York Community Council and a native Williamsburg activist.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery called the mayors plan for cuts “distressing.”

“When the first round of cuts were made, we were told there would be no more cuts. And yet here we are, facing more cuts,” said Sen. Montgomery. “We were told the first round of cuts would result in no impacts on response times, but the standards for calculating response times have changed from the former standard of the time water is actually going onto a fire, to the current standard calculated from when the first fire truck arrives, even though many more minutes may be necessary to get water on the blaze.”

On average, an FDNY unit's response time, which is when the first truck to a scene responses to the dispatch that they have arrived or a “1084”, is 4:01 seconds as of 2010.

The average response time for Engine 233, is 3:08 seconds, and for Engine 218 is 3:16 seconds.

Paul Iannizzotto, a spokesman for the FDNY said that the department has recently adopted calculating the national response time average with their own, and that the response times are currently the lowest ever recorded. The national fire response time is estimated to be around 6 minutes, which is determined by the National Fire Protection Association.

“When they say these are the lowest response times ever [recorded], it’s a fraud,” said Martin Steadman, spokesmen for The Uniformed Fire Officers Association, the union that represents all of the officers in the FDNY. “How can you compare a place like Peoria, or Indianapolis to New York City?”

“If the Mayor succeeds in cutting these companies, some communities won’t meet the response times needed in places like Fargo, North Dakota, let alone a city where we need to fight fires on the upper floors of big apartment buildings,” said Public Advocate Bill De Blasio.

DiPaolo called the usage of the national average “inapplicable” for New York City because of the many different types of buildings and the way the traffic flows in the city.

The Unified Call System or UCT, which was put into place 2 years ago as part of a plan to streamline emergency calls, also plays a role into response time. When someone calls to report a fire, the call is directed to a main dispatcher who takes calls for both the FDNY and the NYPD. Then depending on the nature of the call, the UCT will transfer the call to the corresponding fire house.

Steadman says that the UCT adds an extra 27 seconds to response times, and isn't factored into official numbers.

Fire fighters are expected to do more on the job now too: Before 1993, firefighters and fire trucks did not respond to medical emergencies. In 2010, they responded to more than 218,000 across the city, just under half of all the incidents reported for the year.

“The job is totally different than it was 30 years ago” said Steadman.

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