Call Them Essential in Detecting Propane Hazards
By Bob Hennelly
February 24, 2021
The recent discovery by city Fire Protection Inspectors of more than 900 propane tanks stored illegally in a Brooklyn warehouse has reignited a dispute that’s been simmering since the Fire Department’s decision late in 2019 to stop providing FPIs with carbon-monoxide meters.
District Council 37’s Local 2507, which represents the Inspectors as well as its larger contingent of Emergency Medical Technicians, has been fighting for months to have the hand-held devices restored to its members, who are responsible for regulating propane-tank use by the restaurant industry as it moved to offering outdoor dining as a means of financial survival during the coronavirus pandemic.
‘Essential to Do Jobs’
“We have been going on a year now with the Fire Department asking them to bring back the life-saving equipment,” Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay said. “These CO meters are essential for our members wherever they are responding and inspecting. It’s a reading from one of these units that can prompt our members to order an evacuation when there is carbon monoxide present.”
He added regarding the FDNY’s removal of them, “They say it costs too much to maintain them. But for the Fire Protection Inspector heading into a boiler room where carbon monoxide may be present being without one means we are putting a front-line essential worker at risk, as well as the public.”
The department responded that the CO meter was no longer made or sold and that it was receiving a new model, but the available inventory was “minimal.” For that reason, it said its focus was on keeping “emergency response units (Fire and EMS) equipped with operational CO meters,” which had required the return of those that had been distributed to the Bureau of Fire Protection.
It said returning CO meters to the FPIs would cost approximately $110,000 at a time that the department that “has significant budgetary challenges.”
‘Basically a Bomb’
Fire Prevention Inspector Fatima Rosemond, who was part of the team that discovered the illegal cache of 904 20-pound propane cylinders in a warehouse at 318 Nevins St. in Brooklyn Jan. 22, said she and her colleagues made the discovery while following up on violations they had detected there in December.
“When we pulled up, the garage gate was open, and that’s when we saw all of those tanks,” she said during a phone interview. “This was basically a bomb that posed a serious threat to the public. Across the street there were several residential buildings, and there were restaurants located at the back of this building.”
Ms. Rosemond, who is assigned to the Illegal Conversion Unit, noted, “My brother’s a Firefighter and I wouldn’t want to lose him” by missing a life-threatening hazard. “They should really give us those CO meters back, especially since our unit seems to run into just about anything.”
“It would have blown up a couple of blocks, not just the buildings next to the warehouse,” said Deputy Chief Fire Inspector Daryl Chalmers, who is a member of Local 2507’s executive board. “It would have impacted 10-to-15 blocks away.”
Big Seizure Near Citifield
In October 2019, the FPIs discovered a cache of 4,000 canisters of several kinds of potentially explosive gasses near Citifield on Willets Point Blvd. in Flushing. “Our Fire Protection Inspectors perform outstanding, lifesaving work like this each and every day, identifying and taking corrective action when they find potentially dangerous conditions in our city,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at the time.
The Brooklyn discovery required a multi-unit response to secure the scene and resulted in the arrest by Fire Marshals of the warehouse manager for reckless endangerment. FDNY sources said he later admitted to trafficking in propane tanks for restaurants and businesses looking to provide heat for outdoor dining.
“The thing that gets to me is that we hit that place before and they were violated before,” said FDNY FPI Kevin Bumford, who was part of that bust. He said the proliferation of propane-dependent food trucks, as well as outdoor dining, posed an under-appreciated risk to first-responders, other workers and the public. “I don’t think they really pay too much attention to the life-safety aspect of it until we get there and inform them about what they are doing,” he said. “And what really concerns me is that the restaurant workers who may be called upon to hook up the propane to the heating system have not done it before.”
Victims of Pay Bias?
For the union, the loss of the CO meters is just the latest example of a lack of respect from the FDNY’s brass. Last May FPIs filed a Federal lawsuit alleging they have been the victims of race-based pay discrimination, with city Building Inspectors making nearly $17,000 more at top salary despite having lesser enforcement authority.
The class-action lawsuit noted that while 70 percent of the FPIs are people of color, 50 percent of the Building Inspectors are white.
As of mid-2019, according to the lawsuit, FPIs’ starting pay was $46,607 and maximum was $81,624, while Building Inspectors were paid $61,800 to start and could make $98,347 per year in the top title.
Mr. Chalmers, who is a plaintiff in the case, said last May that FPIs have the authority to issue criminal summonses, while Building Inspectors are limited to civil citations.
“We are peace officers who swear the same oath as Firefighters,” he said. FPIs are also responsible for follow-up on site investigations where there has been a fire. “Firefighters fight the fire and put it out, pull out the hoses and go on to the next job,” Mr. Chalmers said. “We follow up to make sure they won’t have to respond again, but if they do, it will be safe.”