Firefighter, preservationists are burning over island firehouse closing


By Julie Shapiro

Governors Island is growing in almost every way: The number of summer visitors keeps rising, new park space is under construction and plans for the future include artists and a school.

But despite that growth, as of next month, the island will no longer have a firehouse.

Citing tough budget times, the city plans to close the Governors Island firehouse and reduce nighttime staff at four other firehouses in the city, including at Engine 4 on South St. The cuts, effective Jan. 17, will save the city $8.9 million a year.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Pete Gleason, a former firefighter.

Gleason, who is running for City Councilmember Alan Gerson’s seat, said it would take firefighters at least half an hour to respond to an emergency on Governors Island.

The island has no residents, but last summer it attracted 128,000 visitors. The year-round daytime population is growing as well, with an artist residency program starting next spring and the New York Harbor School opening on the island in 2010.

The island will not be dormant this winter, either. Demolition is underway to clear space for a park and promenade around the island’s perimeter, and workers are also continually upgrading the island’s generations-old infrastructure.

“The island is a unique situation,” said an island firefighter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the F.D.N.Y. “There’s no link to the mainland. It’s isolated.”

Steve Ritea, an F.D.N.Y. spokesperson, said Ladder 101, Engine 202, Engine 204, Engine 224, all in Brooklyn, as well Ladder 15 and Engine 4 in Manhattan are all within a 1.5-mile radius of Governors Island and would respond via ferry. He would not estimate how long that would take, saying it depended on weather and traffic. Under the city’s new cuts, Engine 4 will not operate at night.

The firefighter said the ferry takes time to warm up when it’s first turned on, which would make the nighttime response time even longer. The ferry takes seven minutes from Manhattan.

The Fire Dept. will leave some equipment on Governors Island, and the firefighters could take additional equipment with them on the ferries.

Ritea also said the city’s fireboats could respond, spraying ocean water onto the island’s perimeter from the harbor, but the fireboats would not be able to reach the interior, where many of the historic buildings are.

Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, did not think the Fire Dept.’s plans were adequate to keep the historic buildings safe.

“I understand they’re facing tough budget problems, but I certainly hope it’s something they reconsider,” Breen said. She called the plan to use fireboats “a stretch.”

The oldest buildings in Governors Island’s historic district date back to 1805, and the clapboard houses around Nolan Park were built in the 1870s, Breen said. While the old wood buildings pose the greatest risk, fires could also break out in the brick buildings and spread. Many historic buildings are not fireproofed.

“This is a real concern,” Breen said.

Ritea, the F.D.N.Y. spokesperson, said firefighters on the island responded to 10 emergencies in the past 22 months — not a high enough number to justify maintaining the station.

The firefighter who spoke to Downtown Express recalled at least two fires in the last several years: a small electrical one and a car fire.

While the island has not seen any major fires since the Governors Island unit opened in 2004, the past is no guarantee of the future, the firefighter said. He mentioned the Deutsche Bank building, which was being cleaned and demolished when a fire broke out last year that killed two firefighters. Many Governors Island buildings are also vacant and being demolished.

“Nobody thought the Deutsche Bank building would burn,” the firefighter said. “I’d hate to see something like that.”

Governors Island is a particularly dangerous place for fires, because the high wind encourages the flames to spread quickly. The Fire Dept. sets controlled fires on the island to teach firefighters to respond to the wind.

In addition to being on call in case of fire, the Governors Island firefighters also respond to construction accidents. One firefighter recalled helping a worker who fell from the roof of a building and another who fell on the docks and needed his neck stabilized.

Ritea said they are not changing the E.M.S. company’s service to the island, but the firefighter said the E.M.S. team is only there when the island is open to the general public. If a nighttime security guard during the winter had a heart attack, the firefighters would be the only ones who could respond immediately, the firefighter said. The Governors Island unit had a defibrillator and was trained in how to use it.

“That’s another thing that’ll be missing,” the firefighter said.

The National Park Service, which controls 22 acres on the island’s historic northern tip, was dismayed by the plan to remove the firehouse.

“Even though no one actually lives on the island, people are working there seven days a week,” said Darren Boch, a National Park Service spokesperson. “There’s construction going on, which has an inherent danger to it.”

Asked whether federal funding could keep the firehouse open, Boch said that would be too complicated.

The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corp., a state-city authority which controls the rest of the island, including many historic buildings, declined to comment.

Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1, was concerned the firehouse cuts could make Lower Manhattan less safe and easier for terrorists to target. She wrote a letter to Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta outlining the unique security risks Lower Manhattan faces and making the case for reversing the cuts.

In addition to closing the Governors Island firehouse, the city also plans to reduce the hours of Engine 4 on South St. at Old Slip. Engine 4 would not operate during the evening shift, 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. Ladder 15, also stationed on South St., will continue to operate around the clock. There are two other firehouses with engine companies in the Financial District – one on Beekman St. near William and one at Liberty St. near Greenwich.

The 14 Governors Island firefighters will not lose their jobs — they will be reassigned to other firehouses in the city, likely separated from one another.

“It’s just such short notice to have to relocate,” said the firefighter who spoke to Downtown Express. “It’s our living quarters, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”