With a $20 million budget gap facing Syracuse, the city’s busiest fire station may be on the line.
City officials have floated the idea of closing down Syracuse Fire Department Engine Company No. 7, located at 1039 E. Fayette St. But the members of Local No. 280, the firefighters’ union, say that would be a very bad idea.
“In the past two years, we’ve had several incidents of multiple fires in the city. We were stripped, using every resource,” said Paul Motondo, vice president of Local No. 280. “Losing an engine company, especially this one because of where it is and what its responses are, it’ll create a huge void.”
Engine Company No. 7 covers almost two-thirds of the city, from downtown east through Syracuse University and north to the city’s historic Hawley-Green neighborhood. In addition to the university, the station’s response area includes all of Syracuse’s hospitals.
The station also responds to most of the calls concerning commuters coming into the city.
“Eighty percent of them are covered by this engine company in their first or second response area,” Motondo said. “That’s essential.”
The company itself consists of 16 firefighters, who man a fire pumper truck and a mini-truck that does all of the medical runs. There are four men on per shift and four shifts.
In 2012, the station responded to a total of 5,391 fire and medical calls, the most in the city.
Despite the high volume of calls for which the station is responsible, the station itself is crumbling. The building, constructed in 1892 and rebuilt in 1953, hasn’t had any major repairs in decades.
“In the last 20 years or so, the building has deteriorated,” Motondo said. “The floors, the facilities, the condition of the windows, the roof, the doors — everything is in pretty bad shape. We’ve even had chunks of concrete falling down in the basement as the trucks drive over it.”
Necessary repairs to the floor, windows and bathrooms would cost approximately $1 million to $1.5 million. A full rebuild would run closer to $7 million to $10 million. That’s why this particular station has been targeted for closure, in addition to the fact that there are four other stations nearby that could handle its calls — Station No. 10 at East Genesee and Cambridge streets, Station No. 9 on Shuart Avenue, Station No. 12 on Burnet Avenue and Station No. 1 on State Street.
But Motondo said that the facility’s central location is critical to public safety.
“The integral part of this is the location of the firehouse itself,” he said. “Without it, it creates a response hole. In that location, we can branch out and go in any direction. Without it, it will leave a void.”
The fire department, which responded to 27,609 calls last year, operates a total of 12 stations in the city, which include 10 engine companies and six truck companies. Response times average less than four minutes, as all addresses citywide are within two miles of a station. About 350 firefighters staff the department, which is less than the budgeted amount of 389. If Station No. 7 is closed, it would reduce the number of on-staff firefighters per shift by four.
Right now, the city and the department are operating on manning numbers from an expired contract.
“Right now, within our labor agreement, we had a clause pertaining to minimum manning, what we feel is a safe number,” Motondo said. “But that agreement expired at the end of December. Any reduction in that number will create a problem. We’ve already had reductions of two men in the last year and a half. Any more will create a bigger void.”
Motondo said firefighters feel that they’re being targeted for cuts.
“It’s really disheartening,” he said. “Two years ago, we came to agreement about our health insurance. Under a contractual agreement, we increased our payments toward our health insurance. No other bargaining unit has done that. Now it’s time for someone else to step up along with us. No one’s being held accountable but us.”
But Bill Ryan, Mayor Stephanie Miner’s chief of staff, disagreed.
“The conversation is that we have a $20 million gap projected for the next fiscal year beginning July 1,” Ryan said. “Every department has been asked to cut their budgets. It’s not just the fire department; citywide, everyone is being asked to come up with a plan.”
Ryan emphasized the structural issues at Station No. 7.
“Engine Company No. 7 has a lot of structural problems,” he said. “We’re not just talking a leaking roof; we’re talking about chunks of concrete falling through the floor. There’s been no money put into Station 7 for years and years, and there’s no money to put into now. The estimate is about $1 million to fix it.”
But Syracuse Common Council Majority Leader Lance Denno pointed out that the city doesn’t have to come up with that money now.
“Whether it’s repairs or new construction, that cost would be bonded,” Denno said. “That cost would be paid out over an extended period of time. If they were to build another fire station for, let’s say, $5 million — and I don’t even know if that’s a reasonable cost for a new fire station — that could be spread out over 20 years. Quite frankly, this is a relatively inexpensive era in which to borrow money.”
Denno, a former Syracuse deputy fire chief, is a staunch supporter of keeping Station No. 7 open.
“Engine Company No. 7 plays a critical role in providing that public safety in the city of Syracuse,” he said. “I believe that, whether the building needs to be repaired or replaced — that’s a decision that’s got to be made down the road — closing Engine Company No. 7 is an unacceptable risk for public safety and firefighter safety.”
Denno was also concerned about proposed staffing cuts to the department.
“When I was on the fire department many, many, many years ago, we had a minimum of 95 firefighters on duty at any time. We’ve cut fire service year after year after year,” he said. “We can’t continue to cut and expect to achieve the same level of quality professional emergency service that we’ve come to expect from the Syracuse Fire Department. Sooner or later those cuts will have a cost. In this case, we’re talking about public and firefighter safety.”
At this point, layoffs have not been discussed. However, the city is looking at cutting the minimum manning number when they renegotiate the department’s contract.
Denno said he thought the city should be able to come up with the money to keep the station open.
“I think the fact that the council and the administration have decided not to spend $2.5 million replacing parking meters would certainly suggest there are funds available,” he said.
Ryan emphasized that nothing had been finalized yet.
“No decisions have been made,” he said. “We’re in the very beginning stages of the budget process.”
Motondo said that’s why firefighters are making a public plea for support for Station No. 7.
“In the past, a lot of things have occurred to us in terms of closures, and we haven’t had time to react,” he said. “This time, we do have time to react, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re attempting to save it before the budget process gets too far along.”
He pointed to Ryan’s own words in an interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard as support of keeping the station open.
“Per Bill Ryan, if we remove one of the pieces, you’ve got to redo your strategy,” Motondo said. “We agree. If you do this, it will create that void. The city would have to develop a new plan for that entire response area. That’s not public safety.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.
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