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Willig, Williams & Davidson Attorney Richard Poulson Comments on Philadelphia Firefighters Study

October 20, 2010

City Seeks Pa. Study of Firefighting Direction (Philadelphia Inquirer)

By: Jeff Shields and Marcia Gelbart

City fire officials, faced with budget cutbacks, costly union contracts, and complaints about the Nutter administration's commitment to public safety, have asked the state to fund a first-ever study of the city's needs for a 21st-century Fire Department.

The request came on the same day that City Council bashed the administration's decision to save money by putting fire companies on temporary closings known as "rolling brownouts."

Top administration officials asked the city's state-appointed overseer to study everything about providing fire safety, from deployment of fire companies to management structure and revenue. The move signaled a willingness by the Nutter administration to seek an independent review of any restructuring of the Fire Department.

"The study should be an objective, unbiased assessment of the organization as it is now, coupled with a future vision," read the proposal presented to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) from Fire Commissioner Lloyd M. Ayers, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, and Finance Director Rob Dubow.

The Philadelphia Fire Department, with about 2,150 uniformed officers and 110 civilian employees, responded to 221,000 emergency medical calls and 48,000 fire calls in 2009. Advocates of reducing the department say the 56 engine companies and 27 ladder companies serve a city that has fewer people and fewer fires than the department was designed for.

The Nutter administration closed seven fire companies in 2009 in the face of a $1 billion deficit in the city's five-year plan. It then instituted the rolling brownouts to save $3.8 million in 2010-11, saying City Council failed to properly fund the budget.

The union, however, has repeatedly questioned how the administration can make such decisions without a study of their impact.

The proposed study would cost an estimated $300,000 to $450,000, Gillison estimated, money that the cash-strapped city does not have. There is some precedent for such a study. Pittsburgh, whose finances are also subject to a state-appointed PICA board, had a similar independent study done in 2008.

The relationship between the city and its firefighters union is strained. Firefighters have complained that the rolling brownouts that started in the summer jeopardize public safety, and they repeated their contention that the brownouts played a role in the death of a 12-year-old boy in West Philadelphia in August.

The engine company closest to the fire had been deactivated earlier in the day, and when firefighters returned to work shortly before the fire, they had to go pick up their repaired engine truck.

The administration last week criticized as too costly a four-year contract awarded to the firefighters by an arbitration panel, and announced its plan to appeal.

"In this environment, I want to have an independent body do it," Gillison said.

The definition of independent is bound to be debated.

Richard Poulson, attorney for Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the union does not regard PICA as independent.

"I've never seen PICA advocate for an increase in funding for the Fire Department," Poulson said. He added, however, that "reasonable people" should be able to agree on a way to do the study that satisfies all parties.

Jim Eisenhower, the authority's chairman, said PICA was "very interested" in the city's proposal, but did not want to agree to do it without discussing the idea first with Council and the union.

"The city's reason for coming to us is they wanted to have an independent, neutral observer look at this issue," he said. "We think we are independent and neutral. We want to make sure all the parties who would have to review and approve this report would agree."

Eisenhower also said the authority would consider doing the study with the support of other organizations, such as the William Penn Foundation and the Committee of Seventy.

He said he expected to see a formal vote at the authority's November meeting. City officials told the authority that the study should be completed in six to nine months.

   
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