Five years ago I met a recently retired firefighter who told me that what he missed most from the job was all the little things you had to know to be good at it.

For instance, there was this one commercial building in his engine company’s neighborhood. Because of the way local traffic flowed and the position of the hydrants nearby, if there were a fire at this building, the fire engine would actually pass one side of the building but then have to make a couple tricky turns before getting close enough to a hydrant to hook up to it. Those extra turns cost precious seconds.

So this firefighter, who drove the engine, would actually drop a man off as he passed the building, and this other firefighter would hustle down an alleyway to get to the hydrant, remove the cap and get his wrench on, so he was ready to hook the engine up as soon as the driver worked it over to the proper side of the structure. This tactic bought some time.

The first time a new firefighter did this alley run properly he would always look very satisfied, the retiree recalled.”He had to be there,” the man said. “He knew what to do. He felt good.”

Beyond the good vibes, the story illustrates two things about firefighting: One is that seconds count. The other is that you’ve got to know how to use those seconds.

The mayor’s proposal to close 20 fire companies poses potential problems on both counts. Fire companies will have to cover more territory to replace the closed companies, increasing response times. And for awhile at least, some fire companies may have greater responsibility for buildings they don’t know as intimately as the closed companies did.

Potential broad effects

Fire company closings have been threatened before and never come to pass. The threat of closures could just be part of the annual budget dance. The Bloomberg administration has said the closures are not a step it wants to take. “Last year we had the most runs in our history,” said Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano at a City Council hearing this week. “We save lives every day. I don’t want to close fire companies.” But his civilian staff has already been “decimated,” the commissioner says, so “there’s no place else to go but fire/EMS operations.”

Cassano acknowledged that, yes, if companies close, response times will creep up citywide and rise more substantially in the areas directly affected by the cuts.

But the effect will be felt across an even larger area when there are large fires. Even for the smallest structural fire, that local firehouse near you gets help putting it out: four engine companies, which apply water, and three ladder companies, which perform rescues and ventilate fires to direct their course, respond to such a blaze.

A second alarm fire calls for eight engines and five ladders; a third alarm, 12 and seven, and so on. While the total number of structural fires has dropped (from 30,000 in 1993 to 27,000 in 2010), there’s less of a discernible trend in more serious fires. Last year, for example, saw the most three-alarm fires since 1999, and more fires of five alarms or greater (12) than in any year since 1993.

So if companies close, their absence could be felt not just in their immediate vicinity but over the wider area where they responded to larger incidents. “If they are successful and close Engine 271,” Uniformed Firefighters Association president Steven Cassidy said at a rally outside the Bushwick firehouse last Friday, “a vacancy is created somewhere else.”

(Under pressure from the City Council, the administration this week released the list of companies slated for closure, and Engine 271 was not on it.)

Looking deeper at response times

The debate over the closings will revolve around response time, which is time from when a fire company is dispatched to when they arrive at a fire scene. Most attention will focus on the citywide response time number, usually treated as the best indicator of how FDNY is doing.

But the department’s decision six months ago to reduce 60 engine companies from five men to four men–another budget cut–complicates the analysis.

The effect of the move to four-man engines, Cassano said, is that the first engine company on a fire scene has been told to wait for the arrival of a second engine before stretching hoses to fight the fire.

The firefighters on the first engine don’t stand around and wait, of course; they get ready so when the second engine arrives they can work together quickly. But if firefighting can’t begin until another engine arrives, the response time that matters might be the one for the second engine.

And the FDNY predicts that in the case of some (but not all) of the companies slated for closure, “second arriving” time will increase substantially. One instance: Engine 4 now arrives as the second due engine in 4:39; in its absence, second arrivals in that area will be at around 5:45.

FDNY considers that travel time within acceptable limits. And the department says it targeted companies in areas that had good response times and where other companies could pick up the workload.

Al Hagan, head of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, is skeptical. “The Fire Department is like a fabric. Every company is a thread,” he said at last Friday’s rally. “If you start to remove threads, you weaken the entire cloth.”