BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
In the wake of a massive fire at a London high-rise that claimed the lives of 79 people and a recent building collapse at an Astoria construction site that left three workers trapped and in serious condition, western Queens’ elected officials joined city fire officials to call on the city to ensure that safety-related services are keeping up with the borough’s development and, specifically, ask Mayor Bill de Blasio to reopen a Long Island City firehouse.
City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) and state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) joined members of the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA), Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA) and Dutch Kills Civic Association in front of FDNY Ladder Company 116 and former Engine Company 261 to call on the mayor to bring back the company, which was closed four years ago.
“As we saw of the horrific and tragic fire in London, we cannot have enough services,” Van Bramer said. “We cannot have enough members of the FDNY protecting our communities.”
In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the closure of four Brooklyn engine companies, another from Harlem and Dutch Kills’ Engine Company 261 to save the city approximately $12 million, arguing that the companies were underutilized. Bloomberg said that the closing of the firehouses would not affect the safety of residents in those communities and that neighboring firehouses would be able to take on their tasks.
“The mayor at the time was insistent that  was closed,” said Van Bramer. “Let’s be clear—closing engine companies, closing firehouses, eliminating or diminishing fire services makes New York City more dangerous. Anytime we diminish the FDNY, we threaten the lives of everyday New Yorkers.”
The Dutch Kills community holds out hope that the engine company could return. In 1991, Mayor David Dinkins closed Richmond Hill’s Engine Company 294 and, four days afterward, two brothers died in a house fire just nine blocks away. When Rudolph Giuliani then became mayor, he reopened the firehouse.
According to the Long Island City Business Improvement District (BID), there are currently 70,000 residents living within the district that would be covered by the firehouse. In 2000, a total of 68,000 people lived within that district. Although the population growth in the community has not been drastic, approximately 9,000 new units are scheduled to become available this year, making it the largest increase in residential units in Long Island City’s history. Since 2006, a total of more than 20,000 units have been developed in the district.
UFA President Gerald Fitzgerald told the Queens Tribune that other FDNY companies have been forced to pick up runs following Bloomberg’s closure of the six firehouses.
“It’s a ripple effect,” Fitzgerald said. “In this district, of this engine company , nearby firehouses have to expand their response area, which leaves their areas not covered. The ripple effect of losing an engine company is dire. With all the construction all over the city, the population is going up, there’s more buildings, more houses, more office space. Big population means more emergencies.”
Fitzgerald said that in the past five years, each fire engine company has broken the response record set during the prior year due to a doubled demand.
Without 261, Astoria’s engine companies 262, 263 and 312 and Long Island City’s 258 have responded to emergency calls in Dutch Kills. As a result, Fitzgerald said that it takes approximately 30 more seconds for firehouses to respond to emergency calls than in previous years.
“Every second counts,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said that as city leaders consider plans to draw new residents to the five boroughs, they primarily propose the creation of new schools and public transportation to accommodate the population increase, but often ignore the improvement of traffic patterns that would enable fire trucks, police cars and ambulances to get to and from emergencies adequately.
“With the traffic patterns, bus lanes and bike lanes, Long Island City is no stranger to this issue,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only are we responding to more runs, but the time it takes to get back when not using lights, sirens and horns limits our availability for the next emergency.”
Fitzgerald compared the neighborhood’s traffic to the lower west side of Manhattan, calling it a serious safety threat due to the amount of construction in Long Island City and the number of accidents that prevent firefighters from being able to respond to emergencies quickly.
In the past week, two construction-related accidents occurred in Queens. On Monday morning, six construction workers were injured after the eighth floor of a building on 27th Street near 42nd Road collapsed. The site’s workers suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
On June 20—at approximately 3 p.m.—the top floor of a three-story building under construction at 31-25 28th Rd. in Astoria collapsed, injuring three construction workers, one of whom was trapped for nearly an hour.
“The FDNY was heroic in their efforts and rescued these people,” said Community Board 1 District Manager Florence Koulouris. “We have so much building going on right here. We seriously need this engine company open immediately. There is no time to waste. God forbid there’s another accident like that. We have to rely on the people who are here, not the people who are coming here.”
In December 2015, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Long Island City) sent a letter to de Blasio, calling for the reopening of Engine Company 261 due to the increase in construction of high-rise apartments that are side by side with high-rise hotels and condos.
On May 4, 2016, Laura Kavanagh—the city’s deputy commissioner for government affairs and special programs—told Nolan that the city was conducting an analysis to identify areas within the city that have high population growth and may need additional emergency resources. However, the city has not yet released an update on the study.
“The department recognizes that Long Island City is a burgeoning community,” the FDNY wrote in response to a request for comment by the Queens Tribune. “The fire department is dedicated to maintaining the most efficient network of fire-mitigation resources and we continue to adapt our locations with the changing landscape and population of New York City.”
Reach Ariel Hernandez at (718) 357-7400 x144 or firstname.lastname@example.org