Mayor Bloomberg's plan to help balance the budget by eliminating up to 20 fire companies and letting 500 of the city's 8,500 firefighters leave through attrition would bring about the most dramatic reorganization of the fire department since the 1970s. "If we have to close 20 companies, which is a 6 percent reduction in the number of companies we have, it is going to tax us," said new FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano. "It is certainly the most challenging thing we have faced in decades."

The Times reports that the cuts come at a point when both response times and the number of firefighters killed in the line of duty have reached record lows, according to department statistics. But reductions in fire companies and staff might mean increases in response time, more exhausted firefighters, and more wear and tear on department equipment. The president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association said it was "morally wrong to cut fire companies." The FDNY is now looking at data to determine which engines and which ladders to cut.

The final decision will be made by City Council, which in the past has fought to protect neighborhood fire companies. But this year, it's unclear whether the cuts can be avoided. And if state lawmakers approve Gov. Paterson's proposed budget, which would cut $1.3 billion in aid to the city, Bloomberg might implement even more severe cuts that could lead to layoffs for 1,050 firefighters and the closure of 42 fire companies.