Op-Ed: All I Want for Christmas Is the “Fifth Man” Back

Nearly 200 firefighters battled to halt the spread of the blaze on Hull Avenue on November 20.–Photo by Toby Norwood

Dear Santa,

All I want for Christmas is to keep New Yorkers safe. And, well, the best way to do that would be to staff all New York City Fire Engines with five firefighters. Currently, about 90% of all FDNY Engines are staffed with just four Firefighters. That means it will take longer to get the first hose in place to put out a fire – twice as long in some cases. Getting the first hose in place is the most important action that takes place at a fire, and moving that hose in place quicker can and will save lives – both firefighters and civilians.

Firefighters are also trained to provide life-saving emergency medical care. That additional fifth firefighter can make a lifesaving difference at large scale emergencies or multi-car crashes when there are more injuries than first-responders on scene. Sadly, New York City is no stranger to large-scale emergencies – and in a city this big, we all know it isn’t a matter of if, but when the next one will occur.

It’s clear the FDNY recognizes the importance of the fifth firefighter in several ways: when heavy snow is in the forecast or a disaster has occurred, the FDNY will almost automatically add the fifth firefighter. And when the FDNY has the extra staffing, they can dispatch two engines instead of three on certain emergencies. This helps keep companies available when an additional call comes in, and, as a result, will help get many emergencies responded to faster.

Firefighters used tower ladders and portable ladders to access the first three-floors after a deadly fire at 2363 Prospect Avenue in the Belmont section.–Photo by David Greene

Many of the runs that engine companies respond to are medical calls. A recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission minimized the impact that engine companies have on medical runs but the data is clear: in 2016, engine companies accounted for over 300 lives saved on medical runs – 40% of the total that year. FDNY engines also consistently arrive on scene 90 to 120 seconds faster than ambulances. That amount of time can be – and often is – the difference between life and death for people having a heart attack. Having fully-staffed engine companies with five firefighters will keep more engines available and result in even faster response times for medical runs as well.

We’ve heard the calls for new companies at Hudson Yards and in Long Island City – and, as necessary as they are, they aren’t coming anytime soon. Winter, on the other hand, is here now – and, unfortunately, with winter in New York City comes more fires. These firefighters need this help right away.

As we approach the year mark since the horrific fire in Belmont that took the lives of 12 adults and children, we are reminded of how quickly winter fires can turn to catastrophes. That is why we need proper staffing for all FDNY engine companies now.

This Christmas, let’s help the greatest Fire Department in the world save even more lives in the greatest city in the world by permanently restoring the fifth firefighter once and for all.

Justin Brannan is a New York City Councilman representing District 43 in Brooklyn. @JustinBrannan

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