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Pennsylvania Labor Lawyer Richard Poulson Quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer Regarding Firefighters

January 12, 2010

Phila. Fire Deaths at Record Low in 2009 (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
By: Jeff Shields
Deaths by fire in Philadelphia reached a historic low in 2009, Fire Commissioner Lloyd M. Ayers announced yesterday, though the statistic was tempered by the highest number of fire injuries in a decade.
The 30 fire deaths in 2009 was the lowest number since the statistic was first recorded in 1952, according to the mayor's office. But whether the dip was attributable to aggressive fire-prevention efforts or just plain luck remained a matter of debate yesterday.
Ayers and Mayor Nutter credited the decline to an aggressive campaign that includes installing free smoke alarms (available at 215-686-1176) and encouraging home-escape plans with a dedicated Web site,
"Smoke alarms still remain the best protection for the early warning of a fire," Ayers said.
Nutter yesterday noted that the decrease in deaths happened in the same year that seven companies, two ladders, and two engines were deactivated for budget reasons.
"While even one Philadelphian perishing from fire is too many, I am proud that the Fire Department has been so successful in reducing the loss of life," Nutter said in a statement. "A 23 percent reduction is astounding. Clearly the PFD's focus on fire prevention has been a winning strategy for the city."
The firefighters union, however, criticized the Nutter administration for highlighting the statistics, which fluctuate yearly.
"What we had here was a lucky year, and they're taking complete advantage of it to make it look like what they did was right," said Bill Gault, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 22. A union spokesman credited improved medical care at the scene for the decrease in deaths.
Nationally, the number of fire deaths over the last decade dropped by less than 5 percent: 2,900 deaths were recorded in 2008, while in 1999 the total was 3,040, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That was the most recent 10-year period available.
By contrast, Philadelphia had 51 deaths in 2000, meaning last year's total was a 41 percent drop.
Coincidentally, New York City yesterday also announced the lowest civilian fire-fatality total ever: 73 deaths.
Officials for the local firefighters union, whose contract expired June 30 and who are in the midst of binding-arbitration hearings, questioned why the dramatic increase in civilian fire injuries was hardly mentioned.
That figure is the highest for at least the last decade. The number of civilian injuries in 2009 was 315 - nearly double the 165 injuries in 2007 and a 16 percent jump from 2008. The 271 injuries recorded in 2008 was the next-highest total of the decade. (Nationally, fire injuries were down between 1999 and 2008: 18,525 to 14,960.)
"To have the Nutter administration slash its firefighting budget when injuries are increasing, it's astounding," said union attorney Richard Poulson.
Asked to explain the increase in injuries, Ayers said many of those injured did not have smoke alarms. Of the 30 deaths, 21 occurred in 14 properties without working smoke alarms, Ayers said.
Gault also said firefighter and medic injuries increased 10 percent in 2009, from 242 in 2008 to 267 last year.
The department responded to 47,863 fire and other 911 calls last year, a 2.5 percent decline. Of the 268,996 total calls, most (221,133) were for emergency medical care.
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