From First Responder To First Preventer

By Cathy Rainone

New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano always had a good excuse when he was late for class at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

But he didn't have to explain it to his professors.

"Sometimes I got stuck at a fire," says Cassano, a 40-year veteran of the department who's been commissioner since January, "and my professors understood it because they smelled the smoke on me when I got in."

Cassano, 65, became a firefighter in 1969 and in 1970 enrolled in John Jay's fire science program. For six years he battled fires with different engine companies in lower Manhattan then headed off to school after his shift.

CassanoAfter graduation, he rose through the ranks of the FDNY, and he attributes much of his success to earning a CUNY degree. "We took hydraulics classes, we took psychology classes, we took building-construction classes and all of that helped me out in grasping of what it was to be a fire-fighter," says Cassano. "It taught me how to study for my promotional exams. It carried me throughout the rest of my career."

Like many CUNY students who have full- or part-time jobs, juggling work and college wasn't easy. "It was a hectic schedule," he says. "John Jay was full of policemen and firefighters and we all had the same goal: to work, to raise a family, but also to get an education. So it was a great way to go to school."

Cassano graduated from John Jay in 1976 and a year later was promoted to lieutenant, working at Ladder 113 in Brooklyn. He became a captain in 1984, then went on to become a battalion chief, division chief, deputy assistant chief and in 2001, assistant chief. Four years ago, he became FDNY's Chief of Department -- the highest-ranking uniformed officer -- in charge of fire and EMS operations, training, safety, fire prevention and communications. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg named Cassano to become the city's 32nd fire commissioner in January, it was a departure from the selection of previous mayors, who usually chose candidates from outside the department.

Cassano didn't always want to be a firefighter. He loaded trucks on the Red Hook docks with his dad, Angelo, then got a job in a bank. Drafted into the Army at age 20, he returned to the waterfront after a year in Vietnam.

Then one day everything changed. His older brother Patsy, a retired fire captain, took him to a firehouse. "Once he got me to meet the firefighters, to play softball with them, to go to a communal break-fast, it was instantaneously apparent that [being a firefighter] is not just a job, it's a whole way of life," says Cassano. "I tell people that I never felt like I worked a day in my life because I love what I do."

Although his responsibilities evolved over the years, nothing compares to fighting fires.

"There's nothing like the adrenaline rush," says Cassano, who still goes to many fires to assess the department's response. "I miss it every day. The excitement of helping people never goes away. I hear a siren now and I figure I should be responding somewhere."

Although he has been cited five times for bravery, he says he always had a bit of fear when answering the alarm. "You go to work always respecting your job and the dangers of it," says Cassano. "And there's always something in the back of your mind that you may not come home that night."

One of the darkest days for the department was Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 members of the FDNY lost their lives in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

"I was very lucky," says Cassano, who stood in front of the north tower when it collapsed. "I scurried away and was able to dive under an apparatus."

Cassano helped rebuild the department and also helped with the cleanup of ground zero. Nearly a decade has passed since that tragic day, but for Cassano it's still an open wound. "It keeps me grounded," he says. "It keeps me focused on my job.... I'm here to make sure that our firefighters are protected."

Since September 11th, the role of the department has expanded to include training in response to terrorism. In May, when firefighters from Engine 54 and Ladder 4 responded to a car fire in Times Square, they quickly determined it wasn't a fire but a car bomb and called for the police department's Emergency Services Unit.

"They knew exactly what not to do, which was as important as what to do," says Cassano. "We're not just first responders anymore, we're first preventers."

As commissioner, Cassano hopes to make firefighters safer by providing them with necessary tools and training. "If I can do that, I've done my job," he says.

Among more thorny issues for Cassano has been lack of diversity in the department. The FDNY has been mired in a discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of the Vulcan Society, a black firefighters group in 2007. In August, a federal judge ruled that the hiring test used by the FDNY discriminated against minority applications and banned the city from using it as a hiring tool. At press time, the judge ordered the city to try again to find an unbiased way to hire firefighters or wait a year until a new, nondiscriminatory test is developed.

"A third of 4,000 top-scorers on the current firefighter list are minorities, more than ever before," says Cassano. "This is due to the unprecedented and highly successful recruitment campaign we held in 2006 and 2007, prior to the last exam. It's unfortunate that the city is being prohibited from hiring off this list as we had hoped, since there are more than 1,300 minorities in the top 4,000 and they deserve a chance to be hired without race-based quotas being involved."

When he finally retires, Cassano still wants to find something to do to help people.

"I've been doing it for 40 years so I think it's in my blood," he says.

And it seems that he's passed on his passion for helping to his five children. Two daughters are teachers and his youngest son plans to become a firefighter. CUNY is also a tradition in the family. Three of his children graduated from the College of Staten Island and his youngest son is currently a student there and member of CSI's baseball team. "My experience at CUNY was tremendous," says Cassano. "I think it's a great way to get an education without having tremendous bills later on."

" My experience at CUNY was tremendous. I think it's a great way to get an education without having tremendous bills later on. " -- Salvatore Cassano, FDNY Commissioner

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano rose through the ranks over 40 years.