View From The Middle
The Fire Department has finally been given the goahead to hire about 300 more recruits starting in January. We don’t know how many will be assigned locally to our firehouse at Farragut Road and Rockaway Parkway but we can hope it is one of the locations chosen for an influx of personnel.
Although they’ve been doing a magnificent job with minimum staff, it’s about time those workers from Battalion 58, Engine 257 and Ladder 170, better known as “Canarsie’s Bravest,” got some help. Too many times they’ve been seen heading to conflagrations that could have had worse endings had they not been experts at what they do. Too many times they have stared danger — even mortal danger — in the face; incidents that need not have been so treacherous had there been others on hand to help.
It was only two weeks ago that a federal court judge approved a new hiring exam for the FDNY, noting that the test 41,000 candidates took in the spring did not discriminate against minorities, as previous exams did. The judge said Mayor Bloomberg ignored evidence of discrimination in the tests, also blasting a number of other city mayors who, he said, also ignored the rules for years.
Now that whatever problems might have existed with the exam have been just about settled, it’s time to say “get over it,” put the problems aside, hire new people and do the job as it is supposed to be done.
I have always had the deepest respect for firefighters. While growing up I made sure I had one of those toy fire helmets, as most boys do, and I gazed in wonder whenever one of those huge firemen walked by. I knew even at that tender age (five years old maybe?) that I wanted to be a fireman when I grew up.
Well, I grew up and didn’t quite make it to become a fireman. But I have been privileged to work very frequently right along with them. While doing this journalism thing taking their pictures as they fight those fires, I’ve been vicariously (that’s the word!) working side by side with them and, no doubt, getting in their way.
I can cite many instances (too many) where I bravely — I thought — got some good pictures of these guys in action. One in particular comes to mind when, during a hot summer day a few years ago, our guys were fighting a smoky brush fire behind Seaview Park. Besides using hoses hooked up to the engine rig, the individual fighters also used brooms with which they stamped out the small blazes that would crop up around the charred ground. This was (is) a tough job because, not more than a few seconds after stamping out a small burst of fire, it blazes up again and has to be re-stamped upon with the broom until it’s sufficiently smothered.
Ah, but being a courageous, intrepid, daring photojournalist reporter with no discernable inkling of intelligent, common sense, I walked right onto the charred ground (the better to get the photo, of course!) directly behind the brave men doing their job....and was almost immediately surrounded by tiny bursts of fire. My firefighter friends pushed me out of harm’s way, of course, as I pretended I knew just what I was doing at all times (ha!). They knew better and made sure they pushed me to the area that was being sprayed with the hose. Yes, I got drenched — and they had a good laugh on me! (But I got my pictures). Another time — more serious — they were working on one of those three-alarmers in the industrial section of Foster Avenue. It was a big one, and I remember that while I was taking my pictures a few of them were felled by smoke, but bravely got up and continued working. Maybe if there had been more firefighters on hand this would not have happened.
Then, sadder yet, there was the tragedy of December 18, 1998 when three of our firefighters were killed in a blaze at Vandalia Houses near Starrett City. Lt. Joseph Cavaliere and Firefighters Chris Bopp and James Bohan were trapped on the tenth floor of the huge complex while heading to rescue an elderly woman said to be trapped in her apartment. Maybe if there had been more personnel on hand......no one knows.
The New York Fire Department will always be the best in the world. However, one can’t help but think of how, for lack of even just one more man available in a crucial situation, perhaps a life could be saved — or three lives, or more. We can only address that thought with condolences and prayers now, but we can look ahead and be hopeful that soon the FDNY will, while remaining “the Bravest,” be even stronger in manpower in the future.