Engine 60 is saved from the budget axe

Residents and firefighters celebrate the saving of Engine 60 (Photo by Matthew J. Perlman)

Cowbells rang in the sunlit square in front of the firehouse on 143rd Street and 3rd Avenue on June 29, as chanting residents rejoiced, celebrating the escape of their engine company from fiscal cuts.

The city budget had put Bronx fire companies at risk of closure again this year, sparking weeks of protest from worried residents.

Protesters gathered at the Mott Haven firehouse every Wednesday for five straight weeks, showing support for their beleaguered Engine 60.

“We rescued them for a change,” said Carmen Santiago of the South Bronx Community Congress. “It was our turn to save them.”

The mayor’s proposed budget called for the shuttering of 20 fire companies citywide, according to a report issued by the city council. The fire department responded with a list of companies it would select to close based on firefighter workloads and affected response times. The list included 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 on June 1.

This 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 would mean less coverage for the surrounding areas.

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

“By the time the fire department got to us we’d be dead,” said Richard Robinson, 49, who lives in Mott Haven Houses.

Schools and senior services were also spared from layoffs and cutbacks, as result of the new budget agreement.

“New Yorkers can rest easy tonight,” said city council speaker Christine Quinn in a press release. “Knowing that our children will still have great teachers, our seniors will still have great centers to visit, and our neighborhoods will still have great firehouses to keep them safe.”

Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo was present for all but one of the Wednesday evening rallies. She also fought against fire department cuts in last year’s budget.

“Next year’s going to be just as difficult,” said Arroyo to the June 29 crowd. “But we live to fight another year.”

The budget gap was filled by cuts to some social services, like adult literacy programs, and a dip into the rainy day fund, said Arroyo. “But something’s got to give.”

The firefighters themselves would not have lost their jobs, but instead would have been reassigned to other companies around the city.

Mott Haven residents are the ones who would have felt the sting. With large complexes such as  Mott Haven Houses, Jackson Houses and Patterson Houses, looming above the neighborhood, the proposed closure would have impacted thousands.

“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 June 1 rally. “But it’s been here since 1895 – God gave us this firehouse.”

Weeks later Rogers touted the efforts of community residents at the June 29 celebration. “You wrote the story of how to save a firehouse,” he said to the crowd. “Thank you.”