Safety, Foley said, is his number one priority. "It's my job to make sure that the firefighters are taken care of, that they go home safely every day, and that they're properly compensated for the work that they do."

Foley expressed concern that Mayor Anthony Masiello and the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority are cutting the fire department’s budget hastily and without regard to safety. One example of an imprudent cut had to do with the elimination of two companies that specialized in taking care of hazardous materials. "So we no longer have a very good unified haz mat team. They put the cart before the horse. They closed the company, and now, they're starting to train."

Training is a imperative, Foley said. "Small mistakes mean somebody's life."

Another company to be closed specializes in heavy rescue. "The company gets suited up and will go right into the hot zone (in haz mat incidents)," Foley explained. This is the company that has the most up-to-date “jaws of life,” used when people are trapped in disabled automobiles.

Without the haz mat and rescue units, city residents are in jeopardy, Foley said. "Our capacity to address any possible haz mat incident that occurs within the city has been diminished. With the mayor's plan, we won't be able to respond to any of those incidents."

In addition to the obvious hazards that are addressed by the haz mat unit, such as the derailment of a train carrying toxic waste, danger also lurks in the form of conflagrations. Buffalo, a city with older wooden houses, built close to one another, experiences more fires per capita than in any other city in New York State. Buffalo’s approach of fighting fires with quick attack and quick search and rescue has been successful, Foley said. But, with fire companies closing regularly, the manpower will no longer be available for that labor-intensive approach. "We will have to get the fires according to regulations and state law. We'll have to wait outside for a couple of minutes until another company arrives and allows us to do our job. It's what the mayor wants, and it's what the mayor is going to get."

The result could be more loss of life and property. It takes just 45 seconds for a room to be completely engulfed in flames, Foley said. In a minute and a half, two rooms could be fully on fire, and the fire could be "compounded down the hallway." And fire could spread to neighboring houses.

All of this is unnecessary, Foley said, explaining that the firefighters association had been working with the city on cost-cutting measures since February 2003. The firefighters had also been working closely with the Mark Morse Agency of Boston, the consultant hired by the city to do a study to determine how best to re-engineer the fire department. "We're about eight percent of the budget. We're willing to reduce the size of the fire department, the structure, and how we do things," Foley said. But, when the BFSA was put into place in June 2003, the city stopped talking to the firefighters. If the city had followed through with the abandoned negotiations, it could have saved one million dollars from a $53 million fire department budget, and the cuts would have been safe and prudent, Foley said. Nevertheless, he pointed out, until just a few weeks ago, the firefighters continued to participate in a task force that worked on re-engineering the Buffalo Fire Department.

"As soon as they closed the firehouses without consulting with us as to how we could best protect the firefighters through these closings, they drew a line in the sand and said right to my face, we don't care about you, the men that you represent, or the lives of their families," Foley said. When that happened, the firefighters association chose to walk away from the task force.

Foley criticized Masiello for failing to support the firefighters. "I don't understand why the mayor won't stand up and protect at least the people who work for this city. He is afraid of the control board. They berate him anyhow. He has nothing to lose."

City residents will have to take basic precautions to ensure their own safety, Foley said. He offered several suggestions. "Keep a garden hose handy, install some more smoke detectors, check the batteries more often. I would go with the children and teach them how to get out of a second- or third-story window with no safety net."

The situation is bleak, Foley said. He is concerned about the firefighters who are to be laid off in March. "What really bothers me a lot is that there are people who are going to be laid off in March who are, today, risking their lives for the people in the city, knowing that, in a few months, they will not have a job."

Foley added, "We still make house calls, 24 hours a day. On Christmas Eve, we'll be there if they need our help." They will be there for people who make such fire-prone mistakes as placing lit candles too close to the curtains.

Yet, the firefighters are out there, daily, risking their lives because that job is more than just a job to them. Being a firefighter is a calling, a vocation," Foley said. “It’s a career.” by Alice E. Gerard

The potential for disastrous loss of life is ever present in the City of Buffalo. On any day, freight trains, laden with hazardous materials, roll over rail lines that snake through many of the city's neighborhoods. Chemical plants, producing hazardous waste, operate in the city. Within nearly every neighborhood of Buffalo, one can find abandoned warehouses. And yet, at the same time, the city's hazardous materials response unit has been hobbled by budget cuts and the rescue unit could be next, said Joe Foley, president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association.