By Keith Ericsson

It was an almost comical display of political viewpoints in the City Council on January 10 as members of the council's Public Safety Committee questioned Fire Commissioner Howard Safir about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration's intentions regarding the deactivation of all 16,300 fire alarm boxes in New York City. Commissioner Safir talked tough to the lawmakers about the administration's position, calling the current call box system "93 per cent ineffective". When Public Safety Chairman Sheldon Leffler questioned Safir about removing the boxes within days of that hearing, Safir shot back that recent articles in New York Newsday were "totally inaccurate" in their reporting of the story. Interrupting Leffler, Safir added that "obviously the Long Island newspaper does not understand Brooklyn firefighting". In published reports throughout most of early January, it had been rumored that the Mayor and Fire Commissioner had intended to jump the gun on the council. Mayor Giuliani has stated flatly that the fire alarm boxes are costly and that false alarms were running out of control. Citing numbers ranging well over 200,000 false calls, the Mayor says that the City would save two million dollars the first year and, well over five million dollars annually once the call boxes are removed. In spite of figures offered by community groups, the mayor's office and, the council's own studies, the debate that day ended in a stalemate. Neither the council or the mayor's office were set to budge. However the committee voted 9 to 0 for keeping the boxes operable for three months pending adequate review. The current battle over the city budget has been fought on many fronts over the last few months, as both the City Council and the Giuliani administration attempt to advance their respective views over the future of New York for the rest of the decade. While the city's growing budget deficit threatens to rival the mid-1970's brush with bankruptcy, the re-play of yet another crisis may be on the horizon: urban burnout. That was the fear of about a dozen community activists who had held a news conference on the steps of City Hall moments before the Fire Commissioner was set to argue his case. The Fire and Sanitation Coalition of Greater New York, a self-described "regional organization committed to preventing a recurrance of urban burnout in NYC", rendezvoused in front of newscameras with President Dave Rosenszweig and members of the Fire Dispathchers Benevolent Association and electricians from Local 3 on the steps of City Hall. Dr. Roderick Wallace of the Coalition cited double-disaster statistics on housing overcrowding--"70,000 more than in 1970" and a "mayor who has not done his job for a year". The Fire and Sanitation Coalition was alone the following week in calling for Safir's resignation. Eric Rassi cited a Fire Commissioner who "has misled the Mayor and most of the press".

Borough Presidents all (except Bronx's Ferrer) voiced disapproval, as well as 90% of the city council. President Tom Von Essen of the Uniformed Firefighters Association balked at an order using firefighters (who were otherwise busy with building inspections) to flyer neighborhoods with Anti-Call Box propaganda. "A misuse of city funds to further the commissioner's personel agenda," said Robert Ungar, counsel to the fire dispatchers union. Comptroller Alan Hevesi refused to rubber-stamp a concocted "emergency". The NYC Fire Chief's Association, 700 strong with active and retired chiefs, went on record to differ with Safir's claiming their full support. More recently, the Vulcan Society, an organization of African-American firefighters, came out against the plan. "My personal argument is that time is of the essence," said Delbert Coward.

The battle over the city's fire alarm box system is more than a fight between lawmakers and community activists. Some say the dispute is only the latest skirmish over a long running and controversial city policy known as "Planned Shrinkage". The policy was sketched out before New York City's mid-70's financial crisis by former City Housing Commissioner Roger Starr, now on the editorial board of the New York Times. "Planned Shrinkage" was a sort of urban "triage", aimed at withdrawing essential city services--police patrols, garbage removal, street repairs, and fire services--from neighborhoods suffering from deep population losses, decay and deemed to be "unsalvageable".

In short, like a Latin American country squeezed by its bankers, the City tried to cope with the fiscal squeeze and keep-up its debt ratings by writing off so-called marginal neighborhoods. It was a plan to concentrate services on "salvageable" neighborhoods that might otherwise sink into the spiral decay that was already engulfing Brownsville, Brooklyn and the South Bronx. By no coincidence, those neighborhoods chosen for "shrinkage" (abandonment) were overwhelmingly black, poor or Hispanic.

Among the activists who held the news conference before Safir's City Council appearance was Dr. Roderick Wallace. Wallace is the technical director of the Public Interest Scientific Consulting Service and a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine. Little known outside of scientific and medical circles, Doctors Roderick and Deborah Wallace have written numerous papers on the long running policy of "Planned Shrinkage". They point to the 1978 findings of the New York State Assembly Minority Task Force on Urban Fire Protection. The Task Force, led by then Republican gubernatorial candidate Perry Duryea, found that the City's Fire Department had falsified records of fire statistics in the 1970's. It also said that "during the City's fiscal crisis, the Fire Department failed to publish its annual report," resulting in "the suppression of information vital to public understanding."

Wallace and Wallace believe that the falsification of records by the Fire Department was intended to dispel the then and still common belief that most of the fire damage to New York City's housing stock was a result of arson, and to promote the belief that any individual apartment fire may be as random as a heart attack. Roderick Wallace says the fire patterns over densely packed neighborhoods is as predictable as an insurance company's actuarial tables.

Way back in 1969, the City commissioned the New York City Rand Institute (an offshoot of the Rand Corporation, a think tank that provides military models for the Pentagon) to develop computer models of the city, much like those used in defense planning, to improve the efficiency of fire services. The Rand Institute's models were later criticized by both the Duryea panel and the Wallace's subsequent studies as being overly simplistic and generally inadequate. According to those close to City policy making, the Giuliani administration has been accused of using the same Rand Institute models in determining fire safety and policy for the 1990's. While the administration continues to have close ties with both the Police and Fire Departments, ironically, the mayor has suggested the closing of an undetermined number of fire houses in the coming year. This is what the results were following the release of the Rand Institute's models in the early 1970's. According to city records, more than 50 Fire houses were closed throughout the mayoral administrations of John Lindsey, Abraham Beame and Ed Koch. One year following the Rand findings, in 1970, then Deputy Fire Chief Charles Kirby warned City officials of a coming fire epidemic in the Bronx.

Deputy Chief Kirby said that nearly all of the Bronx firehouses should remain open in order to hold the line against the coming firestorm. His warnings were ignored and fire house closings began in the South Bronx, Harlem, Crown Heights, East New York, and the Lower East Side. Incidents of fire increased dramatically in these neighborhoods. The results of the "Planned Shrinkage" policy was devastating and changed the fabric of life in New York. The city experienced an out-migration of roughly 1.1 million middle class non-hispanic whites to the less-populated and lower-taxed regions of the sunbelt. Yet, within the city, residents from these burnt out neighborhoods were moving to similar communities not yet hit with the firestorm. From the South Bronx to Brownsville, East New York to Harlem, the consequences from the burnout were as devastating as they were inevitable--a slow motion urban firestorm that reduced once vibrant areas as surely as B-17's burned Dresden or Hamburg, Germany during World War Two.

While these neighborhoods burned, the misinterpretation of choice, at the time for most commentators, was arson. Memories of the inner city uprisings of the '60's were still fresh in the minds of politicians, journalists, and the public at large. In truth, New York city never experienced the large scale devastating riots that gutted communities in Detroit, Watts, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and St. Louis in the 1960's. Yet, the social consequences of New York's burnout of the 1970's is felt today in the 1990's with higher rent for apartments and ever growing numbers of homeless people.

During the 1989 Mayoral election, candidate Rudolph Giuliani was the only person contesting the office who received the endorsement of the firefighters union. It was during that campaign that the then candidate was asked about the findings of the 1978 Duryea fire task force. As he toured the Neimeyer Houses in the East New York section of Brooklyn he was asked if he would restore cuts in fire service made by previous administrations if he were elected mayor. Giuliani said that one family he had visited complained of reduced fire service in the last 15 years and that he was "committed to making police, fire and, health services major priorities and that they would not be tampered with, or reduced. He added that "if the city needs additional fire service to communities like East New York, under my administration I would see to it that the service would be provided." Yet, Mayor Giuliani has remained steadfast in his position to remove thousands of fire call boxes from city streets. Dr. Roderick Wallace believes New York's burnout has had more of an effect on city life than higher rents and homelessness. He points to the destruction of social networks, elements that make up a community, as having an equally dramatic effect on the city's quality of life among poor people.

Wallace is hardly alone in trying to raise the issue. The Uniformed Firefighters Association saw the effect of cutbacks in service and the delaying response time. To them this meant the increased loss of buildings and lives in neighborhoods the City had in effect declared "free fire" zones. Wallace also contends that the motive behind the City's "Planned Shrinkage" policy was to disrupt voting blocks in minority neighborhoods. If the mayor has his way, say critics of his current proposal, all of New York City could become a "free fire" zone. Fran Luck, an East Village based community activist says, "Giuliani's plan to replace thousands of these call boxes with just under 2,000 cellular telephones sounds like a plan out of Neptune". Reading from the Fire Commissioner's December 27th memo on the plan, he is calling for "hundreds" of cellular telephones to be placed on bridges and around communities with an additional 800 police cellular telephones throughout the city. Brooklyn City Councilman Lloyd Henry, a quiet critic of the mayor, said that such a plan would be inadequate for a district such as his own. The 45th councilmanic district has few working public telephones on the street and, many of his constituents are poor. Many residents in his district are without private telephones and often depend on neighbors who do have telephones to call for police and fire service.

Regarding cellular phones, a FDNY report of July 14, 1994 concluded unequivocally, "...a cellular call box system is not applicable to a streetbox fire alarm system because of its contribution to increased fire company response time. A major secondary cause for rejection is cost. It is recommended that the Department continue its efforts towards the improvement of an already proven, reliable and superior emergency reporting system...consideration of use of cellular call boxes as fire alarm boxes should be rejected at this time."

For now, the administration's plan to deactivate the fire call box system is on hold. The Fire Commissioner's midnight demolition, set to begin Jan 15th, four days before the city council could even vote on it, was ultimately prevented by an injunction issued Jan.14th in the appellate division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn by Justice Thomas Sullivan. The Jan 15th NY Newsday ran the story with a photo of Safir, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, next to Corp. Counsel Paul Crotty (who SHADOW Readers might remember from the Koch attack on the 8th St. squats and who is also the legal counsel vs. the East 13th St. Homesteaders). Judge Snuffs Box Removal, read the headline, with Crotty quote in sidebar: "We're not going to remove any on these boxes." The case was filed by Staten Island Borough Pres. Guy Molinari in his capacity as independant citizen. Borough of Man. President Ruth Messinger followed suit, filing her case with the Fire Alarm Dispatchers Union and electricians from Local 3, technicians contracted to maintain the alarm boxes who would lose their jobs should the city lose the boxes. The case has since gone on to State Supreme Court where Justice Walter Schackman (having pronounced a self-described "warm and fuzzy" Howard Safir "obnoxious" Jan. 27th) will be hearing the arguments not only by the two borough presidents, but of Eric Rassi from the Fire and Sanitation Coalition. He and Jackie Bukowski (currently the lawyer representing The East 13th St. Homesteaders Assn.) are busy preparing testimony as "friends of the court" to be filed Feb. 8th, dealing with the extreme and disparate results of past fire service depletion, the violation of Charter mandate involved in planning the irrevocable destruction of 60% of municipal alarm sounding capacity, and the general malfeasence of duty implied by a Fire Commission who with his staff, misinforms public officials and citizens alike in attempting a "preposterous action."

"What they're doing in this city is some kind of panic." remarked Ms. Bukowski. "Giuliani and these guys are really gonna endanger public safety. It makes a very good enviornmental case..." It is not clear how hard the City Council will fight the administration to maintain the current call box system. Yet, elected officials from Staten Island borough President Guy Molinari to Manhattan's Ruth Messinger are opposed. Messinger told reporters at a City Hall news conference that Fire Commissioner Safir's statistics to the effect that 93 per cent of all calls from the fire alarm boxes are false "are misleading and inaccurate". Professor Wallace's view is more ominous and alarming: "the day the city removes the first fire box will mark the formal beginning of the second wave of burnout in the City of New York."

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