On an overcast, soggy September morning, Edward Kilduff is nestled comfortably behind a large, horseshoe-shaped desk, his eyes wedded to a flat-screen monitor. He pauses for a scheduled respite, rising slowly to his feet in his expansive corner office in downtown Brooklyn, revealing the pristine uniform — crisp, bright white shirt with a patch on the left sleeve; solid, ink-dark tie and matching pants — which has suited the last several years of a career in the city Fire Department that has spanned nearly five decades.
Kilduff, 60, a Flushing native and resident, is chief of department, the highest ranking uniformed member of the FDNY. Appointed in January by Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, he oversees the Big Apple’s 15,000-member fire and emergency medical services.
“It’s the greatest honor any firefighter can have,” said Kilduff, who lives on 163rd Street. “There’s a lot of challenges, but I’m happy to be the guy who’s here helping to move the department forward.”
The 33-year veteran, now seated comfortably away from his desk, speaks with a Gotham accent that peeks through a measured tone, carefully detailing both where he’s been, and where New York’s Bravest are headed.
Kilduff, a graduate of the former Bishop Reilly High School in Fresh Meadows and Marist College, was sworn in as a probationary firefighter in 1977. His first assignment was Ladder Co. 34 in Washington Heights, where he worked for six years before he was promoted to lieutenant and shipped out to Ladder Co. 112 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, near Ridgewood. The newly-minted Capt. Kilduff was sent to Engine Co. 92 in the south Bronx in 1989, and Crown Heights four years later as chief of Battalion 38.
It was during Kilduff’s second stint in Brooklyn that he experienced the most harrowing emergency of his career. On June 5, 1998, a three-story apartment building collapsed during a five-alarm fire on Atlantic Avenue, and as battalion chief he was suddenly tasked with directing the rescue of five trapped firefighters.
Three men survived, but two perished: Capt. Scott LaPiedra and Lt. James Blackmore, an Ozone Park native.
“It was a very difficult job because of a collapse and fire and trying to get firefighters out of the building who were involved in the collapse,” recalled Kilduff, a married father of two.
Though the building technically was up to code, Kilduff said a converted common passageway weakened it to the point that the fire caused it to collapse.
This leads Kilduff into a dialogue on the dangers the epidemic of illegally converted structures throughout the city, especially in his home borough, poses to the public and his members.
“It’s a continuing challenge, because not only are people converting larger buildings into residences, but particularly in Queens we still have the challenge of overcrowding in the buildings,” he explained. “We’ve got two, three, four families living in a building intended for one or maybe two. It’s worse now. The Queens population is just exploding.”
Kilduff related that his greatest test came in the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that eviscerated the department, killing 343 members. A deputy chief in midtown Manhattan’s Division 3 at the time, Kilduff was not scheduled for duty that day, but later was thrust into a major role as FDNY representative inside 1 Police Plaza’s emergency command center.
Cassano, then an assistant chief, tapped Kilduff to head up the department’s night recovery operations at Ground Zero, which Kilduff appreciated because it allowed him to be “there, immediately involved, hands-on, helping out.”
Kilduff’s steady cadence wavers a hint as he recalls the day he lost many good friends when the Twin Towers collapsed.
“It was really everybody from senior leadership on down to firefighters with their first week in the firehouse,” he said. “It was a broad swath and a tremendous impact on the entire department for that reason.”
It took the FDNY years to regroup and rebuild in the wake of the tragedy, and Kilduff was part of the management team that developed initiatives and the two strategic plans that served as roadmaps to a resurgence.
He also serves as an incident commander with the department’s Incident Management Team, which is trained by the federal government to respond to large-scale disasters, and helped lead the FDNY’s response to Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Kilduff said the city fire service has changed significantly in two areas since the time he was riding on rigs and trucks.
“The medical component is a huge part of our responsibility,” he said, before noting that last year, engine companies made more than 200,000 certified first-responder runs and saved approximately 230 lives in the process.
The second component deals with hazardous materials and responding to terrorist-attack situations.
“That takes a tremendous amount of time, tremendous amount of preparedness and training to be ready for,” he said.
The hiring practices of the Fire Department have also evolved. In recent years, a judge has determined that the last three written firefighter candidate exams violated anti-discrimination laws. The city has changed certain prerequisites and ramped up minority recruiting which has led to an increase in black and Hispanic applications.
Though the agency is roughly 200 members below proper head count, hiring from the 2007 exam is on hold after the city rejected federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis’s compromise ruling allowing the FDNY to take on probie firefighters only if it followed suggested hiring procedures. City attorneys are appealing Garaufis’s decision, so Kilduff said he really couldn’t comment extensively on the subject.
“We’re awaiting the latest disposition to see when and if we’re going to be able to hire,” he asserted. “Otherwise we look forward to a new test, and we’ll make the same commitment to recruitment and diversity we did on the last test.”
As the department marches forward, Kilduff said there are “less fires and more emergencies,” so the FDNY has adopted what he called a customer service model that aims to “restore order to the city” following such incidents as last month’s tornadoes and macroburst that decimated parts of the borough.
Kilduff also emphasized fire prevention and safety, and that the agency wants to interact with the communities and welcomes feedback.
“We’re more than happy to do any work within the community that we’re asked to do,” he said.
Asked if he longs for the days of hopping on the apparatus, racing down to an incident, radio squawking commands, Kilduff simply flashed a wry smile, his eyes wandering upward.
“There’s nothing more rewarding,” he concluded.