Days after a fierce early morning blaze gutted a two-story building at City Island Avenue and Schofield Street, hundreds of residents joined local elected officials in a moonlight march on a frigid evening urging Mayor Bloomberg and FDNY commissioner Nicolas Scoppetta to keep Ladder Company 53 open at all times.
On Friday, January 9, Deputy Borough President Earl Brown, Senator Jeff Klein, Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, and Councilmen Jimmy Vacca and Joel Rivera led a flashlight vigil through the streets of City Island, ending in front of Engine Company 70 and Ladder Company 53 at 169 Schofield Street.
Due to budget cuts, the FDNY is planning to close Ladder 53 between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., beginning January 19. While the local engine company would remain operational around the clock, search and rescue missions and top floor firefighting would be delayed until Ladder 61 arrives from Co-op City – at least 9 minutes later by the FDNY’s own estimates. City Islanders believe traffic conditions and a series of drawbridges leading onto the island would lead to longer delays.
“This cut is pennywise and pound foolish,” said Vacca, who co-sponsored the walk along with the City Island Civic Association, the City Island Chamber of Commerce, and Bronx Community Board 10. “Protection is the basic need of the community. The Mayor advised me that this is a budget issue. That is not the issue – the issue is access. I am not exaggerating when I say this is a matter of life and limb.”
Vacca said that the same features that make City Island such a gem of the city – its old homes, its dozens of restaurants and boatyards, its seclusion – also place it at a much higher risk for serious fires.
Chanting “save our ladder, our lives matter,” City Island residents were joined by those from outside of the community to voice outrage at what they said was the balancing of the City’s budget through compromising public safety.
“Obviously, the fire department here is an integral part of the island,” said Frank Murray, a resident who was at the protest. “We have a drawbridge that is over a commercial channel. If that thing is open and there is any type of storm or ice, fire trucks cannot get through and have to take a long route around [to reach City Island].”
Ladder 61 would have to travel over the busiest drawbridge in New York City, opening over 2,000 times a year, to reach City Island, heightening fears that the extra time may cost lives. Both Engine 70 and Ladder 53 are forbidden from making runs off the island because the area’s geographic isolation does not make this practical. Many are asking why the FDNY feels its own procedure should be circumvented.
“The number everyone uses is that you need to arrive at a fire in five minutes in order to save lives,” said Senator Klein at the rally. “There is no secret that when you are fighting a fire or responding to an emergency that speed matters.”
“When you talk about the lives of our children, you cannot put a pricetag on those lives,” Rivera said. “We are here a couple hundred strong, and no matter how cold we may be, we want our voices to be heard.”
The vigil follows a December 15 town hall meeting attended by nearly 300 residents and merchants pleading with top level FDNY officials to keep the ladder company open at night.
“We all realize that we are in difficult economic times; however, cutting back basic services will erode our middle class communities and possibly cause middle class flight from our city,” Benedetto said. “The MTA has already proposed the elimination of express bus service to City Island. The proposal to close Ladder Company 53 is another slap in the face to City Islanders.”