The New York Times

April 28, 2007

With 32 More Fire Marshals, Plans to Expand Services


With fire deaths down across the city, the decision by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to allocate $1.4 million of the city’s 2008 budget for the Fire Department to hire 32 more fire marshals might seem to come at a curious time. But fire union officials say staffing levels will still be low.

News of the financing came on Thursday, with the release of the mayor’s proposed budget.

The city had 6,023 fires last year, one of the lowest numbers in recent history and a marked drop from the early 1980s, when firefighters battled some 13,000 fires a year.

Civilian fire deaths are down sharply, too. According to preliminary figures, 85 people died in fires last year, about one-third of the annual deaths in the late 1980s and well below the high of 310 in 1970.

Still, according to the Fire Department, the city’s fire marshals, who investigate the causes and pathways of fires, have been stretched too thin since 2003, when citywide cutbacks forced the department to whittle its number of fire marshals by half. (Eight firehouses were also closed.) In 2002, before the cuts, there were 211 fire marshals and supervisors working from bases in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

That figure has since shrunk to 100 marshals and supervisors, and all but one of the bases, the one in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, have been shuttered.

As a result of the cutbacks, fire marshals have done more with less, said Nicholas Scoppetta, the fire commissioner. There were fewer marshals on hand to work overnight shifts. Sometimes after midnight, only one fire marshal crew was available citywide, said Stephen J. Carbone, vice president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, the union for Fire Department supervisors.

And because the marshals were based in Brooklyn, it often took them hours to get to fires in other boroughs. The result was a loss of precious time when part of the job of fire marshals is to piece together a fire’s cause by interviewing witnesses, who tend to leave the scene fairly quickly.

Perhaps the most damaging effect of the cuts was that every fire could not be thoroughly investigated. In 2002, marshals conducted full investigations of each of the city’s 6,765 fires, according to Fire Department figures.

Last year, nearly a quarter of the fires could be given only cursory reviews. Fire marshals still went to every fire and thoroughly investigated those thought to be suspicious. But for hundreds of smaller fires, they relied on the assessment of the chief fire officer, the firefighter in charge of tackling a particular blaze, about whether it was suspicious.

Because fire marshals are trained to painstakingly trace the forensics of each fire, they can catch clues of possible arsons that fire chiefs might miss.

Now, with the anticipated addition of 27 fire marshals and five supervisors, the department expects to be able to fully investigate 1,600 more fires a year. It also expects to double the size of the overnight teams, to about a dozen marshals from the current six, and establish a fire marshal command post in Fort Totten, Queens, to service the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan above 110th Street. Having that post is expected to reduce the marshals’ response time to those areas by 20 percent, Mr. Scoppetta said.

News of the financing for fire marshals raised the hackles of police union officials, who have long clamored for the mayor to increase police salaries to make them more competitive.

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said that he had no objection to more fire marshals being hired for public safety but that public safety was diminished because hundreds of police officers leave the department annually.

“If the problem isn’t addressed, the N.Y.P.D. will be unable to attract new recruits, and veterans will continue to quit at the rate of about 1,000 a year,” he said.

And while fire union officials welcomed the news, they said more fire marshals would still be needed. In the early 1980s, the department had 400 marshals, as well as a special arson squad, the Red Caps.

“It’s still dramatically below where we were and where we need to be,” said Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the firefighters’ union.