The Chief: Strain on EMS, Fire Service

Strain on EMS, Fire Service

Council Bills Eye Impact of Development on FDNY

Since the beginning of the decade, when the City Council embarked on the most-ambitious rezoning since WW II, first-responder unions repeatedly warned that the plans for major redevelopment failed to anticipate the impact that the resulting spike in population would have on the delivery of emergency services.

Council Member Joseph Borelli, who chairs the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management, told this newspaper he heard those complaints loud and clear and has reported out of his committee a package of bills that would help document the impact of new development on both fire and emergency medical services before the potential negative impacts were felt.

Require FDNY Updates

Under the two bills forwarded by of his committee Nov. 27, the Fire Department would be required to report annually on the department’s services of substantial rezoning as well as disclose the geographical coverage of each EMS division, and their staffing levels, including the ratio of supervisors to the rank and file workers.

“One of the bills forces the City Council and [the] City Planning [Commission] to take into account fire and emergency services when we do rezoning in the future, and the second bill is an examination of staffing ratios of EMS supervisors to EMS technicians,” Mr. Borelli said in a phone interview. “Both of these have been a problem in the past, and we will only see more problems as we have additional rezonings.”

He continued, “With Hudson Yards, we are going to have 60,000 to 70,000 people there during working hours, which is essentially the size of a city like Schenectady, and they have four engine companies and two ladder companies. These are people that are going to have heart attacks. They are going to slip and break their legs on ice. This is just normal stuff, and yet we passed that without accommodating additional ambulance companies.”

‘Can’t Keep Up’

“We just have to be proactive about the services we are going to need,” the Republican Councilman said. “On Staten Island, the Bay St. corridor rezoning that will happen in the next two months will take an area of just industrial properties and little Queen Anne-type houses and now replace it with multiple six-story apartment buildings. The adjacent fire companies and ambulance company can’t keep up with that.”

Mr. Borelli said that he was also pressing ahead with a measure that did not get voted out of committee to have the FDNY evaluate the impact of the rezonings that occurred from 2002 and 2013 during the Bloomberg administration when the original Hudson Yards plan was green-lighted.

At the Fire and Emergency Management Committee’s April 30 hearing, John Sudnik, the FDNY’s Chief of Operations, testified that the department would support Mr. Borelli’s bill that called for examining the impact of redevelopments on the demand for the department’s services, as well as his proposal for the public reporting on EMS staffing and supervisory ratios by geography.

He said the FDNY would not support Mr. Borelli’s bill mandating a look-back at the impact generated by the Bloomberg-era rezoning, calling that “time-consuming” and “burdensome” and “not likely to yield useful information.”

During the hearing, Mr. Borelli said that he wanted emergency services to be factored into city planning before commitments were made to projects, much as the needs for additional open space and public-school facilities are routinely included.

Stunning Omission

He asked Mr. Sudnik at that hearing last spring how a development as consequential as Hudson Yards could have been approved without any accommodations for the additional impact “60,000 to 70,000 daily visitors” would generate for FDNY services.

“In hindsight, what would have been beneficial back when Hudson Yards was being planned was that we could have identified location for facilities to put potential services in that area,” Mr. Sudnik said. But the FDNY’s Operations Chief insisted that because of the “resource-rich” nature of the FDNY, the department was able to “deploy and redeploy” their resources “as need be.”

The committee did not get such a sanguine analysis from Oren Barzilay, president of District Council 37’s Local 2507, which represents EMS Technicians and Paramedics. He testified that the serious lag between the city’s massive redevelopment and failure of EMS to keep up, had created a crisis in terms of both staffing and facilities.

“Staten Island [is] the third-largest borough with 58 square miles with a population of half-a-million. Yet, there are only two EMS stations on the entire island,” Mr. Barzilay said.

In 1996, when EMS was merged into the Fire Department, he testified, the city had pledged that there would be 70 EMS battalions. “Here we are, 22 years later, with 37 battalions to date with EMS bleeding. The pay is so low we are losing employees every day to other job opportunities.”

‘Busting at Seams’

Mr. Barzilay told the panel wages were only part of the EMS challenge. “Our headcount has significantly increased in recent years, yet our facility count has remained the same with the exception of a tactical trailer facility added in Queens,” he said. “Our EMS battalions are busting at the seams with personnel. Most of our stations are designed to hold five to six units. Now, they hold 10, 11, sometimes 14, if not more.”

That overcrowding means that changing and showering facilities are woefully inadequate, particularly for women employees. “Our female members are forced to change their clothes on the open floor or take their clothes to another room to change,” Mr. Barzilay said.

And, he added, the shortage of showers meant his members were routinely forced into “prolonged exposure” to life-threatening bio-hazards.