The crowd of well-dressed, mostly elderly citizens probably looked harmless to Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta as he strode toward City Hall on Thursday afternoon, but as he drew near, the shouts turned to jeers. He made his way up the steps, waving and smiling, but no one else was grinning. “It’s on your head, Scoppetta!” one woman yelled. A few minutes later Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz warned, “This administration and this fire commissioner could have blood on their hands,” and told Scoppetta to find a new job. Eddie Brown, Bronx trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, echoed the macabre theme: “When somebody in Woodlawn dies, I wish they’d play the tape back of the commissioner smiling.”
The dire warnings have to do with the city’s plans for Ladder 39, located since 1899 on 233rd Street. Everyone agrees that the company’s firehouse is in disrepair. But while FDNY says it has made no final decision on whether to repair or abandon the firehouse, the community suspects the city plans to move Ladder 39 in with Engine 63 in nearby Wakefield. The neighborhood—along with the Bronx beep, local reps, and fire union—wants Ladder 39’s house to be repaired at an estimated cost of $8 million and a temporary firehouse put in place during the rebuilding. If not, they warn, it could cost lives.
Why? It’s not just that the firehouse would be farther away. The streets of Woodlawn are narrow, many of the houses are wood-framed, they sit close together, and the whole neighborhood is isolated—bordered by a park, a cemetery, a highway, and the Yonkers line. Then there’s the filtration plant being built nearby, meaning trucks hauling chemicals to and fro. Ironically, Woodlawn is also believed to be home to lots and lots of firefighters. And all the Irish in the ‘hood mean area stores carry European candy bars, like Aeros, which are amazing. In sum, it’s a special place. (But not that special: One speaker pointed out that, “The Woodlawn community is made up of hardworking people. We have many families with young children,” which is what one can say of just about every city neighborhood, with the possible exception of Rikers Island.)
Fittingly, today is the anniversary of the closure of six firehouses in 2003 during the mayor’s post–9-11 budget bloodletting. And some of the characters are the same, like the mayor, the commissioner, and State Senator Jeff Klein, who in 2004 threatened to subpoena Scoppetta to a hearing on the closures. Now, the FDNY is targeting his district, but Klein’s argument is the same: Closing a firehouse in one place affects other areas. After 2003, Klein said Thursday, “response time not only went up in the communities but in the boroughs and the city as a whole.”
FDNY’s overall citywide response time has indeed increased ever year since the closures. But over the same period, civilian fire fatalities have also dropped. Opponents of the firehouse closures say the former number will eventually rise enough to impact the latter. Activists in Williamsburg, where Engine 212 was shuttered, plan later today to release response times in areas affected by the mayor’s moves three years ago.
FDNY’s press office says there’s no timetable for moving the company or deciding what to do with their firehouse. Councilman Oliver Koppell is trying to force a decision by asking for capital funds for a new firehouse in this year’s budget.