City Council weighs possible lawsuit as fire department won’t budge on mass transfers

A contentious hearing Tuesday afternoon on the fire department’s mass transfer plan that will go into effect this January left frustrated City Council members discussing further steps to delay its implementation, including a possible joint lawsuit against the city.

Councilman Jim Kenney.

“I haven’t seen 17 members of Council, on a controversial issue, all agree, or at least ask for the same thing – and that is delay this until we can at least study it,” Councilman Jim Kenney said of the policy, which would every five years transfer up to 20 percent of the city’s firefighters to different stations, beginning with the longest-serving members. “Is it any indication that no other department in the country does this? None. And they keep on saying, ‘best practices’ – it’s not a best practice, it’s their best guess. And there’s no need to guess about it.”

Chambers were packed with members of firefighters union Local 22.

His comments came after Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, who for the first time publicly defended the transfers, was criticized for crafting the policy with his department’s executive team and Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, but absent input from third-party consultants, rank-and-file members or a review of best practices established by fire departments in other municipalities. “Sometimes, best practices are created based on the situation in that location or area,” Ayers said. “One of the things I believe we are doing here in the city of Philadelphia is creating a best practice.”

Commissioner Ayers.

According to Ayers, the department is preparing for a future in which firefighters play drastically different roles. “You can’t keep looking at a long crawl down a hallway to put a fire out in a back room or rescue a person – that’s not the future,” he said, discussing a vision that relies primarily on prevention through community outreach and education. “In doing that, at some point in the future, you’ll come to a society where you don’t have fires.”

The city had to temporarily suspend its firefighter academy training due to the economic downturn. It is now dealing with a rash of both retirees and new graduates, with two back-to-back classes departing the academy this winter and two more in the spring. Ayers said that because of the decreased fire frequency anticipated, the new cadets will not receive the same kind of on-the-job training as veteran firefighters once did, so they need to be accommodated in busier divisions where they can practice their skills.

Deputy Chief James Bonner.

But according to Deputy Chief James Bonner, the same cost-cutting also led to the elimination of departmental programs that once offered much of the same training that now serves as the rationale behind the transfers, including emergency vehicle operation and officer development. “We now find ourselves in the midst of a grand jury and civil lawsuits being prepared that will expose the operational deficiencies due to the city’s conscious decision to eliminate critical training initiatives,” he said, referring in part to legal actions surrounding a Kensington warehouse fire and partial collapse that in April killed two firefighters.

Firefighters Jose Luciano and Joe Steinmetz, who pulled the bodies

of fellow members Daniel Sweeney and Lt. Robert Neary from the

rubble of a fatal building collapse in April.

Council was left unsatisfied after more than three hours of circuitous back-and-forth exchanges with Ayers and Deputy Mayor Mike Resnick, who appeared on behalf of the Nutter administration. Calls for a rationale based on hard data or best practices went largely unanswered, as did questions about how the move would impact morale or unit cohesion. “You heard the testimony here,” Kenney said. “It was the same thing over and over and over again. [Ayers] had the script and they were going to read it – no matter what question you asked, you got the same answer.”

Deputy Mayor Mike Resnick and Commissioner Ayers.

Ayers and Resnick said they are open to discussing the some of plan’s particulars, but will not delay the transfers in spite of Council’s urging, as well as that of current and former fire officials and the family members of firefighters. “There are so many different people from different sectors of the city and different walks of life and we are all asking that this not be implemented and that it be re-looked at,” Councilman David Oh said. “Because there are serious doubts about the value and wisdom of its implementation – and that’s as honestly as I can put it, with all due respect.”

Kenney said Council is now debating its next move. “I’d hate to have to join in on a lawsuit and have the entire Council join in a lawsuit against the administration after this,” he said. “But we’re looking at all legal options and all legislative options.”

Coming to a boil

Adding to the low morale and animosity against the administration is long-running contract dispute with firefighters and paramedics union Local 22. A judge over a week ago upheld the terms originally awarded by a third-party arbitrator in 2010. The Nutter administration has not yet announced acceptance of the contract and has roughly three more weeks to appeal for a third time, having already appealed the arbitrator’s findings in 2012 and again this summer.

There is a great deal of animosity simmering among union members

when it comes to the administration.

The department last year instituted a mass transfer of paramedics. “This mass rotation, as it would do to our brother firefighters, is still affecting response times, members’ awareness of our new local and an overall safety concern for our citizens in receiving prompt emergency attention,” Local 22’s Paramedic Committee said in a statement. The Nutter administration also attempted to remove the paramedics from the union, but a judge in January ruled against the proposed change.

In another controversial policy, which went into effect Monday, firefighters’ longstanding shift schedule was changed from 10-hour days and 14-hour nights to 12-hour days and 12-hour nights. “The time change, that affects us as families, too,” said fire department Family Association president Therese Garvin, whose husband is a firefighter.

Firefighters used to return home at 6 p.m. after day shifts and leave at 8 p.m. when working nights, but they now work two days from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and two from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., leading to less flexibility when it comes to scheduling family time. “It’s not fair, coming from a family’s perspective,” Garvin said. “[Firefighters] are not objects, they’re people with families, and all these decisions are affecting us.”

Though a judge did not side with the union on that issue in a recent ruling, Local 22 plans to bring it up in the next round of contract negotiations – their currently-contested award expires next June and bargaining for the next four-year award will begin in the coming weeks.

‘Best practice’ breakdown

320 new cadets will enter the field within the next year.

150 firefighters and officers will retire in 2013.

100 firefighters and officers have retired over the past two years, Ayers estimated.

295 firefighters will be transferred in 2013, including 156 who have been in their assignment for 10 years or more and 57 who have been in the same assignment since graduation from the academy. A comparable number of firefighters will be transferred in 2014, beginning with those who have been in the same assignment for eight years or more.

270 firefighters have submitted voluntary transfer requests between Sept. 2011 and Oct. 2012, Ayers confirmed.

20 of those transfer requests have been granted.

One point in particular for which Ayers received sustained criticism was his inability to point to similar policies that had been studied, considered or instituted in other cities’ departments. “This is a critical policy that will have effect on all of Philadelphia – all Philadelphians will be affected by this policy,” Councilwoman Cindy Bass said. “And to not seemingly take into account what other cities have in the past or are maybe currently doing, as far as their transfer policy – I would hope you would take a second look at that and consider what cities similar to Philadelphia and what they have done.”

In fact, such mass transfers are unprecedented in fire departments across the country, according to Council members, who compiled a list of transfer policies practiced by 15 other fire departments in large cities. In the vast majority of municipalities, transfers were granted through a bid system based on seniority. Those include:

– New York City

– Los Angeles City and County

– Chicago

– Houston

– Phoenix

– Miami-Dade County

– San Diego

– Boston

– Detroit

– Baltimore

– Sacramento

– Pittsburgh

– Montgomery County, VA

The only exception is Virginia Beach, where transfers are made at the discretion of the fire chief, though seniority is taken into consideration. No other city has ever even considered a mandatory rotation of senior firefighters, according to Council.

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