Philadelphia Gets Go-Ahead to Make Fire Department Reductions

Updated: 04-10-2005 11:23:47 AM

Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by the Associated Press

A city arbitrator ruled Friday that the Street administration could go forward with its plan to shut down four engine and four ladder fire companies to save the cash-strapped city nearly $7 million annually.

But the decision is in limbo.

Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello's injunction last year blocks the city from making the budget cuts until the state resolves an unfair-labor-practice complaint filed by the firefighters' union, according to Pedro Ramos, the city managing director and former city solicitor.

Ramos said the city would ask the state Labor Relations Board, which would handle the complaint, to accept the arbitrator's ruling, freeing the city to proceed with the reorganization of the Fire Department.

Richard Poulson, an attorney for Local 22 of the International Association of Firefighters, said the union was considering asking the court to vacate the arbitrator's decision.

"We're going to review the [arbitrator's] award and the applicable legal standards and determine if there's a basis for an appeal," Poulson said.

In his decision Friday, Kinard Lang, the arbitrator, concluded that the city does not have to bargain with the union until after it implements its reorganization plan.

Lang wrote that while he shared Carrafiello's "compassion for the firefighters," he did not agree with him. Lang said the law and the collective-bargaining agreement between the city and the union require the city to "bargain with the Union regarding the health and safety impact, if any, of the City's Redeployment Plan, following its implementation."

The Street administration had sought to close the eight fire companies by July 2004. No firefighters were to be laid off, and no firehouses were to be closed. Instead, individual companies within the firehouses were to be either closed or reorganized.

A ladder company specializes in rescues and consists of a fire vehicle with a ladder staffed by one officer and four firefighters. An engine company carries water to extinguish fires and consists of one officer and three firefighters.

The eight fire company closures are part of an overall plan that also would relocate six companies and create eight new emergency medical service units that would operate 12 hours a day to respond to a sharp rise over the years in calls from residents for emergency services.

The administration anticipated the entire plan would save the city $6.8 million annually.

Ramos said the city Friday moved ahead with its plans to buy 10 emergency medical trucks, expected to cost $1.25 million.

Citing the increase in emergency medical calls, Ramos said the arbitrator's ruling gives the fire commissioner "the ability to change as times change."

But Thomas O'Drain, president of the firefighters' union, said the administration's plan would jeopardize the safety of the public and firefighters.

"We want to try and get in front of Judge Carrafiello again and ask for a stay on the award," he said.