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KEANE WARNS OF RISKS IN SHUTDOWNS

Even as he ordered the first fire companies shut down this weekend, Buffalo Fire Commissioner Cornelius J. Keane warned of problems from closing two fire companies each day on a rotating basis.

The city would be better served by shutting down the same two units for an extended time -- not taking turns every day among the city's 36 fire companies -- while City Hall sorts through its fiscal crisis, Keane said.

"I don't want to rotate the closings," Keane said. "It's somewhat disruptive attempting to do this on a rotating basis. I personally would prefer a permanent closing for whatever period of time is deemed necessary. It's far less taxing on the Fire Department to close a company on a permanent basis."

But picking the two fire companies -- a company is a truck, not a firehouse -- to close figures to be a tough sell to the Common Council, which has the ultimate authority, because politicians do not want to lose voter support by reducing fire protection in their districts.

In the past, previous Common Council members opted to rotate the closings so all the districts shared a lesser loss of service rather than single out one or two districts to shoulder all of it.

That policy, however, may not be the best fire protection strategy, Keane said.

Rotating the fire company closings means the department has to come up with as many contingency plans for fire protection as there are units to close.

"It's difficult to rotate the closings because we're constantly having to shore up plans for different areas," Keane said. "We have to shift fire companies and take firefighters out of their normal firehouses and put them into different ones."

And then the plan changes the next day, and the day after that, and so on, as two different companies close, Keane said.

The department last closed fire companies on a permanent basis in 1994, when the new administration of Mayor Anthony M. Masiello shut four companies. A year later, the city temporarily closed fire companies on a rotating basis.

On Friday, Keane ordered two fire companies closed on a rotating basis this weekend, just hours after Masiello and other city officials announced the first steps to deal with the city's $54 million revenue gap.

The first two closings occurred Saturday: Engine 16, one of three companies at the busy fire station at Jefferson Avenue and Kingsley Street, and Ladder 15 near Clinton Street and Bailey Avenue.

Those companies were to reopen today, and two others -- Engine 21, also at Jefferson and Kingsley, and Ladder 11 at 638 Fillmore Ave. -- will close for today.

Firefighters oppose plan

Firefighters at the Jefferson-Kingsley station were not pleased about the cost-saving measure, which aims to reduce overtime.

"It's a poor idea, because we need firefighters more now than ever. We're already at minimal protection levels from being cut over the years," said Division Chief Edward C. Craver, who works at the station. "I would think the priorities of the city fathers would be public safety, especially now."

Other city firefighters also opposed rotating closings.

Engine 18 Firefighter Kenny J. Williams recalled working at Engine 21 several years ago when it was closed from time to time.

"You have to cover greater distances," Williams said, "and it is tough on the crews. A job is a job, but there's no consistency. Firefighters are used to being in their assigned district."

"As far as the taxpayers go, they are being shortchanged. They're paying for a fire truck and they're not getting it," said Engine 18 Firefighter Jerry D. Nappo, whose Fillmore Avenue fire station is about a half-mile from Ladder 11.

Taking another position was Engine 18 Firefighter Darren L. Rice, who said, "If the city doesn't have the money in the budget, what else can you do?"

Keane said he will meet with his top fire officials Monday to devise a longer-term plan, and he also plans to meet with the Common Council this week to seek members' input and to offer his opinion.

"I don't know what the Council wants," Keane said, moments after ordering the first companies closed. "I got orders from City Hall to close companies, period, and that's what I'm doing."

The Common Council is loath to close fire companies.

"It's difficult. But we have to pay our bills," said Common Council Majority Leader Rosemarie LoTempio. "If that's one of the things we're forced to do, if we don't get money from Albany, we'll have to do it."

The mayor's office appears to favor the rotating closings, and it wants a plan from Keane this week.

"We're going to ask him to rotate the closing of two companies, but to make sure the safety of firefighters and public is always maintained," Masiello said. "We don't like to do this, and we're not happy about it. But given the options we have available to us, this has the least impact."

About 20 firefighters are in each company, with four or five on duty each shift. Some firehouses have one company. Others have two or three engine and ladder companies.

Buffalo has had at least 151 firefighters on duty at all times; now the number has fallen to 143.

Even with two fire companies closed, the city is not laying off firefighters because the department has been relying on overtime to fill 50 vacancies. The closures mean the vacancies won't be filled.

Keane said he selected Engine 16 and Engine 21 to be among the first companies closed because they share the same firehouse.

"When 16 is closed, 21 is (on duty) at the same location," he said. "We have two engines at the same location. When I close one, the other is available to take the calls. And they're also surrounded (in the area) by other engine companies."

Ladder 11 was closed because of its location: It's surrounded by Ladder 5 at Seneca and Swan streets, Ladder 6 at Jefferson and Kingsley, and Ladder 14 at Bailey Avenue and Doat Street.

"We believe we can handle any fires in those districts with the remaining companies surrounding the closed company," Keane said.

Response times affected

Firefighters take pride in maintaining a response time of less than four minutes for the first-responding company and several additional minutes for backup companies.

That kind of response is even more important in Buffalo than it may be in other cities, because Buffalo is an older city whose housing stock is primarily 2 1/2 -story, wood-frame houses. In some neighborhoods, the houses are built close to each other, some only a foot apart.

But protecting these neighborhoods would be harder if the department has to take turns closing all of the companies, Keane said.

If the department were to close Engine 4 at Abbott Road and Hollywood Avenue in South Buffalo, for example, the response time to some neighborhoods in that district would jump to eight minutes.

"That's unacceptable," the commissioner said.

If forced to close Engine 4, Keane said, he'd simply transfer another engine company to Engine 4's firehouse.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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