City Islanders protest planned firehouse cuts

Councilman Jimmy Vacca (center) hosts FDNY Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano (third from left) and FDNY Bronx Chief in Charge James Esposito (second from left) who took questions from the mostly upset or angry capacity crowd at Lido’s Restaurant on Monday, December 15. Residents were concerned about the planned nighttime closing of Ladder Company 53. Photo by Patrick Rocchio

The FDNY’s plan to shutter City Island’s Ladder Company 53 between the hours of 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. beginning January 17 has the community up in arms over what they feel will be diminished safety possibly endangering lives during the nighttime hours.

City Island residents and merchants upset with the FDNY’s plan to shutter Ladder Company 53 at night attended a town hall meeting hosted by Councilman Jimmy Vacca on Monday, December 15, where they expressed their concerns to FDNY’s chief of department Salvatore Cassano and Bronx chief in charge James Esposito.

Community Board 10, the City Island Civic Association, and the City Island Chamber of Commerce took part in the meeting, which was held at Lido’s Restaurant.

Hundreds of residents, as well as elected and appointed officials, were quick to highlight the unique situation the island community faces when it comes to fires.

“We are joined here tonight to send a clear message to the FDNY that we feel this plan is penny-wise and pound-foolish, making sitting ducks of City Island residents and tens of thousands of other New Yorkers who visit City Island on a regular basis,” said Councilman Vacca.

Vacca said that if a fire reaches into the upper floors of buildings during the period of cut service, the nearest ladder company –Ladder Company 53 – would take at least 10 minutes to respond to a fire on the City Island, and have to travel over major highways and two bridges, one of them found in a Department of Transportation study to be the busiest drawbridge in New York City – Pelham Bridge.

The response time could spike in the summer, when traffic on the road leading to the island can back up for almost a mile.

“Precious moments would be lost, and we know of all of the traffic issues the island has in the summer,” Vacca said.

FDNY Chiefs Cassano and Esposito answered questions at the meeting, but were in some cases greeted with catcalls.

Esposito pointed out of that of 142 different ladder companies across New York City, Ladder Company 53 ranked last in terms of activity. The FDNY has also pledged to increase the number of firefighters on duty from four to five at Engine 70, which share the same Schofield Street house with Ladder 53. Nevertheless, for the most part, the crowd was not impressed.

“One of the reasons the number of runs are so low is that our men are not allowed to leave the island to go to fires,” said resident Barbara Dolensek.

Residents fear a catastrophic impact on City Island because Ladder 53 handles all search and rescue operations. In the past two years, several major blazes have affected City Island, including fires at the Morris Yacht Club and the old P.S. 17 building.

Residents were also concerned about potential fires on wooden docks and in boat yards that often abut residential space.

“This is our 81st year as operators of a family owned boat yard on City Island,” said resident Helen Anderson. “We need this ladder company. There is only one way on and one way off the island. We cannot have this happen to us.”

The FDNY announced the nighttime closure December 4 as part of a cost-cutting plan. Originally, five engine companies were to get the ax, but that number has been reduced to three.

“City Island is a unique situation,” Esposito said at the meeting, pointing out that there were also hard to reach places in the Rockaway’s in Queens.

Councilman Eric Gioia of Queens addressed the capacity crowd, urging them to fight as hard as they know how to keep the Ladder 53 operating at 24/7. Gioia praised the work of rank and file FDNY members, but said that a shuttered ladder company in his district never reopened when it closed during previous FDNY cuts several years ago.

In the past three years, City Island has seen major fires at a local pizzeria and pub, a landmark schoolhouse turned museum and condominium complex, and an historic mansion housing a yacht club.

The FDNY recommended Ladder 53 for closure several times in the past, most recently during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and reversed it’s position every time. Vacca, Senator Jeff Klein, and others are petitioning the FDNY in hopes of a replay of the 1970s crisis.

“The existing engine company is simply not capable of handling a major fire emergency on its own, and there is no way to guarantee that the nearest ladder companies will be able to make it onto the island in time to save lives,” Vacca stated.

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