DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
The Fire Department’s average response time to building fires in Queens increased by three seconds last year to four minutes and 58 seconds – a backslide that has some anxious Queens residents seeing red.
The FDNY’s firehouse-to-curb time for the city overall decreased for a third consecutive year in 2007. But borough-by-borough figures released last week show that Queens trailed the citywide average by 31 seconds – an agonizing eternity when it comes to fighting a blaze.
“The numbers are getting worse instead of better,” noted City Councilman Eric Gioia, whose district in western Queens has seen a considerable building boom in recent years.
“I don’t mean to be alarmist, but my concern is that there’s a catastrophe waiting to happen here,” said Gioia, who serves on the Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee.
Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon explained there was no single reason for the uptick – such as a blizzard or a blackout.
“Every day there’s a swing in the response times and that depends on a lot of factors,” Gribbon said. “This is something we monitor every day.”
But Martin Steadman, a researcher for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, noted that Queens has historically been underserved by the Fire Department, with response times lagging the citywide average by about half a minute.
He said it’s “unacceptable” that more hasn’t been done to narrow that gap.
With the number of new building permits in Queens at a historic high, fire companies here are expected to only get busier.
“The FDNY can’t do anything about the work load – which hit a record. The calls just keep coming in,” Steadman said.
The department responded to 5,166 structural fires in Queens last year, up nearly 6% from 2006.
“Queens is a big borough, geographically speaking, and in some of the outer areas, they’re covering more ground,” Gribbon said. “In Queens, we’re also keeping an eye on population growth and changes.”
However, the FDNY currently has no plans to add firehouses in Queens, he added.
Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said one thing that can be done to shave seconds – including the time it takes smoke-eaters to climb the stairs or set up hoses – is to have five firefighters with each engine company.
“The FDNY’s own studies show that an engine company staffed with four firefighters takes twice as long to begin operations at a fire scene than one staffed with five,” Cassidy said, noting that of the 48 engine companies in Queens, only 10 are staffed with five firefighters.
Elected officials also raised concerns about Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta’s order – issued in November in the wake of the deadly Deutsche Bank building blaze – for firefighters to spend three additional hours a week doing inspections.
But Gribbon pointed out that in the month following the order, response times actually went down citywide.
That did little to quell concerns among local leaders that valuable seconds could be lost in a borough already lagging.
“Anybody who knows anything about firefighting knows that time is precious,” Gioia said. “Every second could be a matter of life or death.”