Fire department budget includes pre-K and Vision Zero

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At a budget hearing before the City Council on Monday, outgoing fire commissioner Sal Cassano outlined the difficulties in reducing the department's response times, and explained the budget allocations to support Mayor Bill de Blasio's pre-kindergarten and Vision Zero initiatives.

Appearing before the Council's fire, criminal justice and finance committees, Cassano touted the record-low number of fatal fires in 2013. With 67 fire-related deaths, he said 2013 was the fifth straight year there were fewer than 75 fire deaths.

Despite the low number, councilmembers pressed Cassano on the department's nine-minute response time for emergencies, which Cassano confirmed has not changed since the he testified during preliminary budget hearings.

"Your response times to life-threatening emergencies is over nine minutes, and if you don't have oxygen going to your brain, and you're in cardiac arrest, you don't have five minutes, let alone nine minutes," Queens councilmember Elizabeth Crowley said.

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Cassano blamed the closing of hospitals and a lack of resources for the slow response times.

"As hospitals close, as hospitals do away with their ambulance service we're replacing those tours that are given up, and we're doing as quickly as possible to provide us with the best possible ways to get the response times down," he said.

Cassano also said the department is working with various city agencies to help implement universal pre-K.

"To that end, we are funded for five new inspectors for the Bureau of Fire Prevention to address the increase in U.P.K. classroom inspections that we anticipate will be needed before the start of the school year in September and going forward," Cassano told the Council.

The department is also allocating $1.3 million per year to pay for a one-day refresher training for all fire and E.M.S. personnel who operate heavy machinery like fire engines.

"To take part in this Vision Zero, we've decided [to give] our chauffeurs and ambulance drivers a refresher course just to make sure that they have more of an insight at the daily traffic and traffic skill," Cassano told reporters. "We haven't done that before."

Crowley also grilled Cassano about a FDNY policy that does not require an E.M.S. dispatch when a fire is first reported.

The policy has come under scrutiny in recent days, and the administration has called for a full investigation of the city's 911 response system.

Cassano maintained it "did not make any sense whatsoever," to dispatch an ambulance when a structural fire is first reported, citing cases of false alarms or fires where medical assistance is not required.

"It would have made sense in at least two cases that we've seen in the last couple of weeks where people died," Crowley said. "The answer is simple, you need to add more FDNY ambulance tours."

Cassano later told reporters he is preparing to leave the department on Saturday. Incoming commissioner Daniel Nigro will take over operations next week.