Ramping up pressure on Mayor Michael Nutter, hundreds of firefighters flooded City Council on Thursday morning in an effort to stop an administration plan to rotate senior firefighters through firehouses across the city.
It is the latest skirmish in the firefighters’ four-year battle with the administration that shows no sign of ending.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Bill Gault, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 22, speaking to reporters just before the meeting. He called the plan “vindictive” and said it would lead to unnecessary deaths. “Firefighting is a team game. Don’t break up the team. It’s a recipe for disaster. People will die. Fireman will die.”
A spokesman for the mayor said the union’s response to the proposal was “hysterical fear mongering” and that the re-deployment plan would strengthen the department by helping firefighters broaden their skills.
“This is about a vision of creating a stronger force, a better educated, better prepared force in the future,” said spokesman Mark McDonald.
Council members unanimously agreed to probe the matter, voting to hold hearings at 10 a.m. Nov. 27 in council chambers. In an unusual move, Councilman Jim Kenney announced the time and date of the hearings prior to the vote to authorize them.
There seemed little doubt that council would support firefighters.
To roaring applause, seven of council’s 17 members made speeches on the floor in their support.
“Many of us have still not adjusted to brownouts,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, referring to a controversial administration policy of rolling closures of fire companies across the city, implemented by the Nutter administration to save money. “We’re in total agreement with the firefighters. This doesn’t make sense, and we support them 1,000 percent.”
Members questioned the wisdom of the plan – noting that other large cities, including New York – rotate firefighters at the very beginning of their careers, but after four years of rotation let firefighters stay at the same firehouse.
“We need to look at and reconsider the re-deployment and transfers of our firefighters,” said Councilman Bobby Henon, who, along with Councilman Mark Squilla, called for the hearings. “We’d like to know the reason for putting our citizens in harm’s way.”
Henon, earlier in the week, sent a letter to Nutter and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers asking them to reconsider the new policy.
“There are many questions behind the methodology of these transfers,” he said. “I’m not sure what the intentions are behind these transfers.”
Union officials contend the new policy is an administration effort to punish members and force out senior union members.
McDonald dismissed that notion, again emphasizing that the plan would give individual firefighters the opportunity to broaden their skills and better prepare them for management positions.
Ultimately, council has no authority in the matter of deployments, but one person shouting from the balcony summed up the purpose of the union’s appeal to council.
“Put the pressure on the mayor,” shouted the anonymous member.
Several hundred firefighters swept into chambers to voice their opposition to the plan – they occupied most of the room’s main floor and the galleries on both sides. Some carried signs with slogans like: “Sit and rotate on this, Nutter,” “Mass Transfers; Mass Casualties” and “Dictator Nutter.”
Under the administration’s plan, which is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 293 senior firefighters – those with 10 or more years of service – would be put into a five-year rotation that would force them to work at firehouses across the city, rather than the ones where they’ve spent the majority of their careers.
“You’re taking the senior guys out of a firehouse. Think about how much institutional knowledge will be lost,” Gault said. “Injuries and response times will rise if this policy stands. There are different hazards in different neighborhoods. It takes a fireman a long time to learn the gig.”
Nutter has been at odds with firefighters and the city’s two largest municipal unions since taking office in 2008. None of the organizations have a contract.
And, there were hints of more trouble to come.
Councilman David Oh announced that council will be holding hearings to investigate the lack of contracts at 10 a.m. Dec. 12 in council chambers.
Firefighters were joined by members of the city’s four largest municipal unions, who attended council to show their support for a proposal by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, in which the city would build a casino and dedicate a certain amount of revenue to the city’s pension fund.
Speaking before the meeting, Cathy Scott, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 47, blamed the contract impasse, which dates to July 2009, on the mayor.
“This mayor really doesn’t understand the art of negotiations,” she said. “His position is, essentially, that he going to obtain everything that he came to the table with, or he’s not going to have a contract. I think it’s clear where the problem is.”
On Wednesday night, union members demonstrated in front of the mayor’s Wynnefield home.