Centennial Celebration

Press Releases

For Release February 4th, 2015

Testimony of Stephen J. Cassidy, President Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York to the New York State Senate Public Hearing Examining Police Safety and Public Protecton in New York City

Good Afternoon Chairman Golden and members of the committee. My name is Stephen J. Cassidy and I am president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, representing more than 8,100 active New York City Firefighters.

For New York City Firefighters this is a critically important topic.

Little more than a week ago, members of the FDNY commemorated our brothers who died in the horrible Black Sunday Fire. Three New York City Firefighters lost their lives in a Bronx apartment building fire. They were Lt. Curtis Meyran, Firefighter John Bellew and eventually Firefighter Joseph DiBernardo.

The structure involved in this incident was a 4-½ story brick apartment building built in the 1920s. Each floor had three apartments and the building had an exterior fire escape on the rear western side and to the front of the structure. It would have been a routine fire call for an experienced FDNY company, but that was not the outcome.

The reason is that the apartments involved in this incident had been renovated into illegal single room occupancies (SROs) and lacked sprinklers. This is a horrible and cautionary tale, especially in a city where there is such an extreme housing shortage and there are too many landlords willing to cheat to make a fast buck.

As in this case, the landlord’s only regret is when they are caught and facing lawsuits or imprisonment.

The original apartments in this particular building were partitioned into five separate bedrooms with a communal kitchen and bathroom.

Each SRO had a single entrance and at the time of the incident each bedroom door was padlocked by the occupants for security.

A new partition wall constructed with wood framing and covered with sheet rock limited access to the building’s rear fire escape.

The SRO renovation was a clear violation of New York City building codes since the structure did not have automatic fire sprinklers and no permits had ever been issued for this construction. But how were the firefighters to know about the dangerous and illegal conditions inside?

According to the fire investigation, the cause and origin of the fire was faulty electrical wiring in a receptacle in a 3rd floor apartment. Responding firefighters became trapped by advancing fire and were forced to evacuate through the fourth floor windows, a five-story drop.

State building codes require that single room occupancies (SROs) in non-fireproof tenement buildings have automatic fire sprinklers in every hall or passage within the apartment and at least one sprinkler head in every room. This apartment building did not have sprinklers.

The transformation of the 4th floor apartment into a SRO led to the construction of an interior partition wall that impeded the discovery of the fire and hindered the firefighters’ searches. It also prevented firefighters from reaching the rear fire escape, their secondary means of egress.

A SERIOUS THREAT IN NEW YORK CITY:

While it is clear and expected that building owners should always follow current building codes for the safety of tenants and firefighters alike, more must be done to compel this compliance, as well as grant New York City Firefighters access for inspection of any suspicious building renovations.

Illegal SRO units, which can be found all across the City of New York, are death traps! Yes illegal and dangerous SRO’s can be found in virtually every neighborhood in every borough in our city. It is likely that there are more than 100,000 illegal SROs across the city.

If cracking down to get rid of such illegal and dehumanizing housing inventory is not a priority of each and every administration in City Hall, then unscrupulous landlords are empowered. Remember that leaders in City Hall are also historically challenged by the extreme shortage of available, affordable housing. So this is a problem that has festered for far too long.

The New York City Department of Buildings receives about 20,000 complaints of general illegal conversions each year with the potential fine to landlords for an illegal conversation ranging from $2,400 up to $25,000 for repeat offenders. Considering there may be more than 100,000 illegal units here in the city, Buildings Department inspectors issue only about 1,200 vacate orders annually.

If those inspectors cannot gain entry to a house after two visits, they must simply close out the investigation. In 2011 for instance, only 46 percent of buildings that received complaints about illegal conversions were inspected, according to a September 2012 report from the Mayor’s office.

Partitions, illegal walls, padlocked rooms and exit doors, sealed off windows, blocked fire escapes, mattresses scattered across the floors of hallways, basements, not to mention hotplates, mini-refrigerators, microwave ovens, space heaters, extension cords and overcapacity electrical sockets, are among the dangers that can cause fires and created untenable conditions for NY City Firefighters.

URGENT PROTECTIONS NEEDED FOR 1,400 NEW FDNY MEMBERS:

Having proper protections in place also means that New York City Firefighters know they have disability benefit protections when needed. If New York City Firefighters are going to protect the public, then they need to know that should they become seriously burned or injured, paralyzed or disabled in the line of duty, that they and their families will be protected too. The sad fact is - NEW - New York City Firefighters DO NOT have these protections.

Since January 2013 the FDNY has hired some 1,400 new firefighters. If any of these probationary firefighters are seriously burned, injured, paralyzed or permanently disabled in the line of duty, the approximate value of their disability protection amounts to only $27/day.

Please ask yourself, would you risk your life and heath for $27/day? Could you afford to live, raise a family, while permanently disabled on that budget? I think not.

The city has not taken yet up a Home Rule Message to correct this crisis for first responders, likely based upon the city actuary’s flawed and overinflated calculations -- which ignored the anomaly of the 9/11 attacks impact on forced firefighter disability retirements.

In short, it failed to discount for the fact that thousands of New York City Firefighters were forced to retire specifically because they were stricken with cancers and diseases from their service following the 9/11 attacks – over 100 of whom have since died from their toxic exposures.

Being a New York City Firefighter is one of the most dangerous professions in our nation and firefighters should always be 100% focused on their responsibilities in any fire or emergency. To be distracted by “what if” concerns about who is going to take care of their family if they’re seriously injured, is simply bad for public safety.

Senators, there are many dangerous issues threatening New York City and its Firefighters that I could have spotlighted today, but I ask that you concentrate on these issues and how they threaten and impact firefighters and civilians alike.

Thank You.

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