Critics: N.Y. Fire Department's Efforts to Reform Stunted

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Two years after scores of firefighters perished in the World Trade Center (search), the fire department's efforts to prepare for future terrorist attacks have been hobbled by dwindling resources and political battles, fire officials and others say.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta (search) has made progress in transforming a department that only this week memorialized the last of 343 members killed on Sept. 11, 2001. But the department has fallen short of goals set a year ago to improve its response to future attacks, according to fire officials, union leaders and outside observers.

The city still has only one hazardous materials unit. A system recommended to assist communications has fallen by the wayside. And the department's ranks have been depleted, with more than 20 percent of firefighters retiring since the attacks -- many for health reasons.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Scoppetta said budget constraints forced the department to pick carefully from a series of sweeping reforms outlined in a 105-page report examining the department's sometimes-chaotic response to the attack.

"For some things, there's just not money available," Scoppetta said. "We have got to run our department at the same time as we do all of these other new initiatives."

Although new federal funds have helped pay for equipment and training, the department's budget was slashed by $50 million this year, to $1.1 billion, as the city struggled to close a multibillion-dollar deficit.

"You're asking us to do more," said Uniformed Firefighters' Association (search) president Stephen Cassidy. "We don't have the resources. We don't have the training."

Political problems have also proved distracting. The city's decision to close six firehouses to save money embroiled officials in a months-long battle with community activists and union leaders.

Management consultant McKinsey & Co. recommended the overall reforms last summer in a 105-page report examining the sometimes-chaotic response to the trade center attack.

The report recounted how thousands of off-duty firefighters rushed to the nearest firehouse, their own firehouse or straight into the towers on Sept. 11. At times, communications were garbled and the chain of command fell apart.

Fire officials since launched a new procedure to summon off-duty personnel in stages -- a battalion or division at a time -- to predetermined locations. Department leaders laud the new procedure, but union officials say it worked poorly in a recent drill.

The department also more than doubled the number of firefighters with hazardous materials training, to roughly 1,000, but still has just a single, Queens-based hazardous materials unit.

Communication failures -- which left many firefighters unaware of the twin towers' imminent collapse -- have been helped by handheld radios that work better than their predecessors. But the report also recommended a system of repeaters to boost signals, which are often lost in high-rise buildings or underground.

Scoppetta says installing repeaters on buildings would be costly and time-consuming -- while new, portable repeaters have proved useful. Some remain skeptical about the mobile system.

At the same time, the department lost decades of experience when 2,348 firefighters retired after the attacks -- three to four times the normal rate. More than 1,800 firefighters have been hired, but the retirements have been devastating for a department dependent on hands-on learning.

"They're less prepared," Cassidy said, "mostly because they've lost so much senior personnel."