The head of the New York City Fire Department says staffing shortages could shutter up to 20% of firehouses next Monday, once the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate goes into effect. FDNY Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said he would also predict 20% fewer ambulances on the road.
Nigro said FDNY is bracing for the potential shortages by canceling all vacation days starting November 1st, requiring people to work overtime and reassigning uniformed employees who typically work desk jobs back into the field at firehouses across the city. Municipal employees are required to get at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Friday at 5 p.m. and enforcement will start Monday morning.
“The department must manage the unfortunate fact that a portion of our workforce has refused to comply with a vaccine mandate for all city employees,” Nigro said in an email statement to WNYC/Gothamist. “We will use all means at our disposal, including mandatory overtime, mutual aid from other EMS providers and significant changes to the schedules of our members. We will ensure the continuity of operations and safety of all those we have sworn oaths to serve.”
Ahead of last week’s announcement of the new mandate, FDNY had one of the lowest vaccination rates of any city agency -- with just 59% of its firefighters and 60% of its emergency medical service (EMS) workers vaccinated through October 15th.
As of Wednesday, that rate had inched up to 68% for all of FDNY’s 17,000 workers, officials said. They added that further progress leading up to the deadline could still stave off the worst predictions. Ahead of a similar deadline for the city's education department, 18,000 school employees took shots over the course of 10 days.
Some union officials have been railing against the new vaccine mandate for days, attempting to block its implementation with lawsuits and urging city officials to walk it back or postpone it. Union representatives for firefighters planned to rally outside Gracie Mansion on Thursday morning in a final call for Mayor Bill de Blasio to reconsider.
“Response times could double or triple. We have no idea what’s going to happen. Fires are gonna grow. Heart attack victims -- we’re gonna be unable to reach in time. People stuck in elevators may be stuck in elevators for hours,” warned Andrew Ansbro, the President of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. “The basic services of the city are about to come to a near screeching halt.”
Ansbro said union leaders had been warned earlier this week that all vacation days would be canceled indefinitely starting Monday. “Those members that are vaccinated are being punished,” he said.
Vincent Variale, a rep with the Uniformed EMS Officers Union Local, had a less apocalyptic take on what might happen next Monday.
“We don’t know yet. We still have a few days,” said Variale, whose union represents lieutenants and captains. “I hope it’s not 20%. I think you’ll have a lot more members coming in at the last minute. We’ll see what happens.”
Asked about contingency plans to stave off staffing shortage, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed to his comments Wednesday morning at his daily press briefing.
“These are very agile organizations used to dealing with crises, used to dealing with natural disasters,” de Blasio said. “They'd know plenty about how to make the right moves to keep everything going.”
Ansbro said despite the mandate, he was urging members to show up to work on Monday regardless of their vaccination status.
“Go to work. Because there may come a time in that day, where they beg you to get on the rig.”