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Firefighters: Sept. 11 caps year of departures, low morale
By Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Despite their status as America's heroes, many city firefighters say morale has dipped to the lowest point in memory because of labor disputes and the loss of hundreds of veteran colleagues.
"Firemen always love their job, but as far as working for the city and being treated the way we've been treated, morale is pretty lousy," said Tony Cummo, a 25-year veteran planning to retire Nov. 1.
The 11,500-member department lost 343 firefighters at the World Trade Center, and 747 more have since retired. An additional 360 commanding officers said in a union poll last month that they plan to retire within a year.
Firefighter unions say the departures threaten public safety.
Department leaders say claims that people are in danger are overblown. They say that bolstered training and new recruits' enthusiasm can compensate for the loss of experience.
"We're on a mission," said Sal Cassano, department chief of operations. "Sometimes, with dedication and enthusiasm, you make up for a little of that experience."
The department lost 4,400 years of accumulated experience when the twin towers collapsed. Many of the hundreds of firefighters who retired since then were drawn by the prospect of higher pension benefits because of the overtime they worked during the aftermath of Sept. 11. Others were pushed to leave by nervous family members, or they wearied of the pay.
Rank-and-file firefighters have worked for more than two years without a raise or union contract. A new recruit with a spouse and two children earns about $31,000 a year. After 20 years, salaries can reach about $55,000.
The firefighters union and the union representing commanding officers are lobbying Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration for pension and pay changes to help retain veterans.
They say probationary firefighters with less than a year on the job are rushing into situations for which they are unprepared, and freshly promoted officers are struggling to manage these inexperienced crews.
Union officials acknowledge there have been no deaths or serious injuries since Sept. 11. And they declined to cite any incidents of delayed or risky operations, saying that would embarrass individual fire companies.
But another terrorist attack, even a more conventional disaster, could be catastrophic, they say.
"It's Russian roulette," said John Dunne, who represents fire captains. "We're just hoping that nothing happens, that the cylinder that clicks when you put it next to your head isn't loaded."
Carlos Kirjner, who directed a five-month study of the department's Sept. 11 response for management consultant McKinsey & Co., acknowledged the extraordinary challenge. But he said a strong pool of experienced firefighters who remain on the job should allow the department to recover.
"There are certainly lots of talented people in the department," he said. "Certainly with appropriate training they will be able to step up to perform any tasks that they are asked to undertake."
Retaining veterans is at the center of a union push for a pay raise and pension changes.
The city opposes a move to base firefighters' pensions on their highest-paying year of service. FDNY retirees receive a pension equal to half their last year's pay under the current system. That leaves many who made many thousands of dollars of overtime after Sept. 11 feeling they have little choice but to retire now.
City Hall, facing a more than $5 billion budget deficit, has estimated the pension change could cost $18 million annually.
The administration also points out that it already worked with the unions on two recently passed pension changes. The state Legislature removed a pension cap for firefighters with more than 30 years, and allowed 20-year veterans who remain in the department to tap pension funds to supplement their salaries.
"We have already presented our legislative package," said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for Bloomberg. "We asked them what they wanted, we came to agreement and we went and asked for that."
On pay, the firefighters' union is weighing whether to ask the city for a deal like the police pay hike --11.5 percent over two years -- granted by an arbitration board this week, said union president Steve Cassidy. The officers' union has approved a similar arrangement.
A deal, Cassidy said, would improve the mood of his membership, which he called miserable. "It's absolutely, positively at an all-time low," Cassidy said.