NY fire, police chiefs: Massive layoffs will endanger lives

The fire and police chiefs of the city of Schenectady responded to the prospect of losing 33 firefighter-medics and 40 police officers


Paul Nelson
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — Police Chief Eric Clifford fears the city could again become addled by gangs, drugs and double-digit homicides if the department is forced to lay off about 40 cops because of a deepening fiscal crisis brought on by the coronavirus.

“Quite frankly, we go to the bare bones minimum of what we do –  protect life and property – and we have to start scaling back on what we do as a department,” he said. “What I see is that the long-term effect is that we might start seeing a rise in gangs, a rise in the dealing of drugs, a rise in crime, and that’s unfortunate  because we put in a lot of good work over the last seven to 10 years stamping that down.”

The fire and police chiefs of Schenectady, N.Y. have warned that potential layoffs of 33 firefighter-medics and 40 police officers could endanger lives. (Photo/Schenectady Permanent Firemen's Association)
The fire and police chiefs of Schenectady, N.Y. have warned that potential layoffs of 33 firefighter-medics and 40 police officers could endanger lives. (Photo/Schenectady Permanent Firemen's Association)

Fire Chief Ray Senecal could find himself down about 33 firefighter/paramedics as well, which he recently said would make the already dangerous job of battling blazes even more perilous and hamper the department's ability to carry out other critical potentially life saving duties.

He described one potential scenario where the department might have only five fire trucks in service, with two on a call, leaving only three to respond to a structure or residential fire.

“It’s a scary thought because it would be a lot more dangerous to not only our firefighters but the citizens not having the (appropriate) response,” Senecal said. “If I start with five, and I have four pieces out, that leaves me with one, and I can’t run a hazardous material operation with one piece of apparatus.”

Mayor Gary McCarthy, who has previously said the city faces an $11.5 million revenue shortfall, said Wednesday that his administration is keeping a close eye on what's going on in Washington but must start making decisions about where to trim by the first week in June, keeping in mind what he described as the administrative process.

"I'll sit down and talk to the union leadership this week, go through that, and work out scenarios so people understand what we're doing and why we're doing it." he said. "At the same time, I'm talking to people and asking them to call people in Washington to try to get some rational minds to prevail."

Senecal said the roughly 114-member fire department, which has a few vacancies, currently responds to a “working structure fire” with a crew of about 20 firefighters because of the various roles they perform simultaneously at a fire scene, including fighting the blaze, rescues, treating victims, ventilation work and stretching the fire hose at the scene.

“It takes roughly 18 to 20 people to do those all at the same time,” added the chief, who has 31 years on the job and said he's never seen anything quite like this. “If I had 12, some of that work doesn’t get done, which will create a much more hazardous condition for us.”

Senecal pointed out the county will also lose out since city firefighters also handle emergency calls for hazardous materials and, because of their training as paramedics, would be pressed into service if there was ever a mass shooting in the region.

The staff reductions would also mean that instead of 20, he would now only have 12 firefighters per shift, Senecal said.

Clifford said some of the city cops on loan as part of several federal task forces combating gun violence, gangs and other vices may be brought back in house.

He said he would still maintain the same level of patrol officers on the streets because he fully expects a surge in call volume once the city opens back up and more people get back into the normal rhythm of life.

On the force since 2002, Clifford recounted when the 140-member department was dealing with upward of a dozen homicides and the gang problem was rampant.

“I have 160 officers and every year during the budget process I ask the mayor to give me 10 more,” said Clifford.“My fear is that short term cost savings for the pandemic will make it that I have to fight every year to build my numbers back up,” he said.

Over the past three weeks, Clifford said he has all but cut overtime, which in part has led to a backlog of 20 calls, many of them quality-of-life issues during afternoon shifts on days when the weather has been nice.

As a result, the department has recently started experimenting with a new model for non-violent incidents, where an officer at the station calls back the complainant and or the perpetrator, sometimes through video conferencing, in a bid to try to get the dispute resolved.

Schenectady County District Attorney Bob Carney worries that a pared-down police force could be detrimental to more complex police probes that are sometimes required of violent crimes.

"If we're not getting a police response on the investigatory level, then we're going to have less of a robust prosecution," he said. "We would have fewer cases and the ones we have would be less-well investigated."

Carney said some of those aspects of the investigation that the police handle now would fall on his team of investigators.

Clifford said this looming financial calamity is daunting.

“My intention with even saying all this is not to make people feel uncomfortable, uneasy, or unsafe, it’s simply transparency, it’s to let everybody know that this is a real situation that is not an easy fix,” he added. “The municipality, the city, which inherently is the people who live in the city because they’re the taxpayers need help in the same way that every small business got help from the federal government.”

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©2020 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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