Protesters to city: Leave our firehouse alone

Engine 60 Returns from a call, as protestors stand aside. (Photo by Matthew J. Perlman)

Losing Engine 60 would imperil Mott Haven, critics say

Chanting residents gathered in front of the firehouse on 143rd Street in Mott Haven on June 1, playing drums, hoisting protest signs, and marching against city budget cuts they say could endanger lives.

One proposed cut would eliminate Engine 60 from the 143rd Street firehouse, near 3rd Avenue, and would reduce the number of firefighters at the station from 50 to 28.  Community groups, local schools, churches, and tenant associations, have come together to protest the closing.

“You say cut back – we say fight back,” shouted the crowd in unison.

The firehouse, like most in the city, is home to both an engine company and a ladder company.  The two work together, with the engine company supplying water and controlling the fire, while the ladder company rescues trapped citizens and provides ventilation by punching through the floors of burning buildings.

Neither can get the job done on its own.

The fire department as a whole works in much the same way.  When one house responds to a call, neighboring units cover the area until they return.  Losing an engine in one district will mean less coverage for the surrounding areas.

“The fire department is like a fabric,” said Alexander Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. “These cuts are lowering the thread count.”

The mayor’s proposed budget calls for the shuttering of 20 fire companies citywide, according to a report issued by the city council. The fire department has responded with a list of companies it would select to close based on firefighter workloads and affected response times.  The list includes three Bronx engine companies.

“The Bronx is first when it comes to cuts,” said Wallace Hassan, president of the Patterson Houses tenant’s association as he addressed the protestors.

The firefighters themselves would not lose their jobs, but instead would be reassigned to other companies around the city.

Protestors gather in front the firehouse on 143rd Street in Mott Haven, hoping to save Engine 60. (Photo by Matthew J. Perlman)

But Mott Haven residents are the ones who could feel the sting.  With large complexes such as East Side Settlement House, Mott Haven Houses, and Patterson Houses, looming above the neighborhood, the proposed closure could impact thousands.

“It’s a psychological thing,” said Tom Martin, Battalion Commander. “They won’t close the whole house, only a single company, so people still see a presence and think nothing has been affected.” But those closest to this firehouse, he added, will now have to wait for a different unit to respond, “Which will take longer.”

Local activists organized the rally, which drew about 60 residents, who were forced to move twice during the hour-and-a-half-long rally, so Engine 60 could respond to calls.

Misa Velasquez, 55, has lived in Mott Haven  for 20 years.  “I love those guys,” she said.  They open the hydrants for kids in the summer, and fill flat-tires on their bikes.  “We’re all like a family.”

Another local resident, Anetta Leonard, 71, is collecting signatures from area businesses  to try to keep the station open.  “I get the managers to sign first,” she said.  Then they let her ask the customers.

A plan to cut firehouses  was defeated by the city council last year, Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo said, but added that, unlike then,  there’s no clear way to plug the gap this time.

The group of organizers on 143rd Street vowed to come back to the firehouse every Wednesday until the city reaches a decision.

“I’m not here just for my guys,” said Alexander Hagan.  “They’re not going to lose their jobs, I’m here for the people.” Shutting down the fire companies would require 45 days notice, he said.

“We’ll lay down in front of the fire truck if they try and take it away,” said activist Marty Rogers, who has lived on 151st Street all his life.

He remembers the decades of abandonment and arson, the ravaged blocks burnt out by fire, and he doesn’t want to go back.

“Bloomberg thinks he gave us this firehouse,” said Rogers during the rally. “But it’s been here since 1895 – God gave us this firehouse.”