Federal judge allows FDNY assistant chiefs' demotions to proceed
The judge rejected the chiefs’ argument that the department wouldn’t be able to handle a major crisis without them
By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — A Brooklyn federal judge rubber-stamped an upcoming raft of FDNY demotions, rejecting the chiefs’ argument that the department wouldn’t be able to handle a major crisis without their leadership and experience.
Judge Rachel Kovner denied a request for a temporary restraining order against the demotions of assistant chiefs Michael Gala, Joseph Jardin, and Fred Schaaf late Thursday.
FDNY Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh ordered the chiefs demoted on Feb. 3. In short order eight more chiefs, including John “Jack” Hodgens, the FDNY’s most senior uniformed official, and Chief of Fire Operations John Esposito, relinquished their ranks and asked to be put back in the field in solidarity.
The demotions will all be in effect come Monday, leaving a major staffing vacuum in the top levels of the FDNY, officials said.
Attorneys for the chiefs said if the demotions went through the department will be left without experienced leaders to coordinate the battling of massive fires such as the Staten Island blaze that critically injured three firefighters last month, or the blaze at a Brooklyn NYPD warehouse in December that destroyed the building, as well as scores of case evidence that was being held inside.
“This case is about one thing: the safety of the public and valiant firefighters of the New York City Fire Department. (Kavanagh’s) demotions pushed the FDNY past the tipping point,” Attorney Jim Walden, who is representing the chiefs, noted in his law papers.
The judge didn’t buy the argument that the chiefs were unreplaceable.
“(The chiefs) have not established that irreparable harm will occur if the court does not immediately require plaintiffs to be restored to their previously held duties and prevent their formal demotions from going into effect,” Kovner wrote. “(They) have not even alleged that they themselves will suffer irreparable harm as a result of their demotions.”
The FDNY did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Philip Banks tried to put the kibosh on the upcoming exodus earlier this week by calling Hodgens and Esposito personally and flat-out denying their request to be put back in the field.
“If you love the department, you’ll stay, Banks told Hodgens, according to sources.
Walden said he was “disappointed” with Judge Kovner’s decision.
“But my clients will continue their fight for the public’s safety, which has been their sole mission for three decades,” Walden said.
In past FDNY administrations, demotions, particularly at the higher ranks, almost never occurred, one FDNY source said.
“It just didn’t happen,” the source said. “If they weren’t doing their job, they just wouldn’t get promoted anymore. If there was a real issue, the commissioner would just ask them to retire.
“Now everyone is up for grabs,” the source said.