Union Official Says Fire Chief Ignored Memo on Truck Safety

NY Times - October 11, 2006

by CARA BUCKLEY

The president of the union representing 8,900 New York City firefighters lashed out at Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta yesterday, saying he had ignored an internal memo that warned of possible safety flaws in the doors of the department's fleet of trucks.

The memo, sent to Mr. Scoppetta from Allen S. Hay, the department's chief of safety, was prompted by an accident on May 2 in which a firefighter, Thomas LaBara, 28, suffered head injuries after falling from the door of a moving fire truck in Lower Manhattan.

In the memo, dated June 12, Mr. Hay suggested that the door had not latched properly even though it appeared to be shut, and that similar accidents could be prevented if a panel was affixed to doors of the department's trucks.

But the Fire Department insisted that there was nothing defective with its truck doors or latches, and said that the accident would not have occurred had Mr. LaBara been wearing his seat belt, a safety precaution that the department said it has long urged its firefighters to take.

"Part of safety's job is to make recommendations to fix a problem, but this is not a defective part," said Francis X. Gribbon, a spokesman for the Fire Department. "There have been virtually millions of responses with these trucks and with these latches, many multiple millions of times these doors open and close. And this is the first instance."

Videos of the accident, taken from two security cameras on nearby buildings, show a fire truck turning onto Broadway, its lights flashing. Suddenly, Mr. LaBara tumbled from a left rear door, striking his head on the pavement. Mr. LaBara rose to his feet and took a few steps before collapsing, whereupon his colleagues rushed to his side.

Mr. LaBara's injuries have prevented him from returning to work, said Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

In a news conference yesterday, Mr. Cassidy criticized what he characterized as the department's failure to safeguard the door latches, saying it revealed misguided priorities.

"It is a disgrace that the fire commissioner cares more about response times and does not even listen to his top safety chief when it comes to firefighter safety," Mr. Cassidy said.

In the memo about the accident, Mr. Hay said the company that manufactured the truck, Seagrave Fire Apparatus, had redesigned its door latch mechanism this year to prevent similar accidents from occurring. But Scott A. Mintier, the company's president and chief executive, said he knew of no such redesign. Even if the door was only partly latched, it would have stayed shut, Mr. Mintier said, leading him to conclude that the door was open when it left the station.

Mr. Cassidy's charge marked the latest salvo in the increasingly antagonistic relationship between the union and the department. Earlier this year, the firefighters association claimed the department ignored repeated malfunctions with a ladder in the Bronx, a claim the department has disputed.