In their signature red hats, New York Fire Patrol members responded to emergency calls last week when a Manhattan doctor rigged an explosion at his East 62nd Street townhouse. Prepared to dig through rubble and rescue what remained of the building's contents, the salvage corps instead found itself in the unusual position of having nothing to save.
The organization is in another unusual position: It is waging a fierce battle to rescue itself.Following a vote January 31 by its underwriters to dissolve the 203-year-old group, patrolmen were notified last month that October 1 would be their last day of operations.
To patrolmen lobbying to remain active, the notice, dated June 29, came as something of a challenge. "Now we've got to fight twice as hard," the vice president of the patrolmen's Local I-26, Eric Schultz, said.
Representatives from Local I-26 said they would consider alternate funding, and that they would like to negotiate with the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, which supports them via a 2% surcharge on insurance premiums.
The Fire Patrol was created in 1803, decades before the first paid firefighters were employed by the city. It once occupied 10 firehouses throughout the city, although now maintains only three stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Working regularly alongside firefighters, the more than 80 patrolmen enter burning buildings or respond to water leaks and floods, where their primary function is to save property from water damage by covering goods with canvas tarps, and pumping water out of buildings.
The patrol estimates that it responds to some 10,000 calls annually, and saves $75 million worth of property on average each year.
The move to disband it came in late 2005 after an independent audit found management and operational flaws that raised questions about its productivity. "The patrol is an entity that time kind of forgot along the way," the audit's author, Gregory Serio, said.
Among his findings, Mr. Serio indicated a lack of computer systems inside patrol houses, and a shortage of communication technology for use with the fire department.
Critics also said their dissatisfaction includes uncertainty over how much money the patrol saves insurers. It costs more than $8 million to fund the patrol, and "insurance companies that are funding this organization no longer find any value in it," the vice president of the New York Insurance Association, Ellen Melchionni, said.
Patrol officials, however, point to a list of accomplishments, including the deployment of more than 30 patrolmen on September 11, 2001, when patrolman Keith Roma died in the line of duty.
Among their recent property rescues are millions of dollars worth of art, including eight original Andy Warhol paintings saved from a June fire in the meatpacking district.
In recent weeks, patrolmen — supported by other firefighters unions — have made emotional appeals for their jobs.
Said a 30-year veteran patrolman and the treasurer of Local I-26, Charles Tedesco: "We need to catch a break, we really do."