Disgruntled rank-and-file firefighters greeted Mayor Michael Nutter and senior Philadelphia Fire Department officials with inflammatory chants at the dedication of a new, long-awaited firehouse in Tacony on Tuesday.
As Nutter, Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers cut the ribbon on the $6.7 million Engine 38 facility at Keystone Street and Magee Avenue in normally bucolic Disston Park, more than 150 members of the city’s firefighters union, Local 22, loudly demanded that the administration honor the labor contract awarded to them in 2010 through binding arbitration.
And as community leaders toured what would be the city’s first-ever “green” firehouse, Local 22 members questioned how long the facility would remain open full-time before it would become subject to the fire department’s controversial brown-out policy.
“We are here today because the mayor continues to stick behind claims that he can’t afford to pay our contract and can’t afford to stop brown-outs, which isn’t true,” said a union demonstrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity to shield himself from possible on-the-job backlash.
Under the brown-out program, the fire department shuts down operations at certain firehouses throughout the city on selected shifts on a rotating basis. Neighboring fire companies cover the vacated territories. Initiated in 2010, the program is meant to save the city $3.8 million annually in firefighter wages, particularly overtime expenditures.
ldquo;It’s a never-ending battle between us and [Nutter], when the number one priority should be safety,” the anonymous union member said.
Demonstrators, many of whom were accompanied by their spouses and children, assembled outside the firehouse as public tours of the site began at 10 a.m. They booed as Gillison and then Nutter arrived. They waved signs demanding a “recall” of the mayor, who was elected to a second term in 2011.
The demonstrators, who were not in uniform, re-assembled inside the firehouse as Nutter and other officials took turns speaking at a podium. Some union members walked out of the building as the Rev. Joseph L. Farrell of St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church led a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. Others walked out as Nutter approached the microphone.
Hecklers interrupted the speakers repeatedly. When a group of demonstrators chanted, “binding, binding, binding,” a reference to the unfulfilled arbitration award, event organizers attempted to close the three towering garage doors to buffer the noise and lock the Local 22 members out of the firehouse. But savvy demonstrators prevented the doors from closing by standing beneath them and triggering safety sensors.
“This is America and people have a right to express themselves,” Nutter told the Northeast Times after the event. “Sometimes, you’d like them to use certain judgment, but you can’t do anything about that.”
The mayor insisted that the protests couldn’t spoil a joyous occasion.
“You cannot rob the community of their joy and appreciation for what happened here,” Nutter said. “We promised them a new fire station, new fire equipment and we fulfilled that.”
Engine 38 had been on a perpetual brown-out because the company, while still commissioned by the department, had no firehouse. The city tore down the former firehouse at State Road and Longshore Avenue in 2009 to make room for construction on Interstate 95.
The new Engine 38 is not on the brown-out rotation.
“Engine 38 will be operating full-time as soon as we cut the ribbon, twenty-four-seven,” said Battalion Chief Chuck Walker, who oversees facilities and equipment for the fire department.
The department has not disclosed if it will add engine companies to the brown-out rotation to compensate for the removal of Engine 38 from the rotation, or if Engine 38 will be added back to the rotation eventually.
“We’re looking at other possibilities for stations in [other] areas,” said Executive Chief Richard Davison, the fire department’s official spokesman. “But that decision hasn’t been made yet.”
Bill Gault, the Local 22 president, said that the department issued a memo to union members stating that Engine 38 will remain active full-time for at least one month.
“All I know right now is this is not going to be browned out this month,” Gault said.
Walker described the new firehouse as a state-of-the-art facility where any firefighter would be pleased to work. It is the city’s first newly built firehouse since 1997. The city and the state split construction costs about evenly.
In addition, the fire department assigned a new apparatus to the resident company. The bright red 2012 KME “water tower” diesel truck cost between $250,000 and $300,000 to buy and equip, Walker said.
The 12,200-square-foot building has two floors and was built into a natural slope, so there are entrances on both floors.
The garage has three bays, although just one apparatus has been assigned to the facility.
It was built to achieve LEED Silver certification due to its environmentally conscious construction and design. Certification is pending.
The station has a storm-water management system and efficient heating and air conditioning systems. All of the raw materials used in construction originated within 500 miles of the site to minimize the environmental impact of transporting them. Tubes inside the garage collect the exhaust from idling trucks and filter out the contaminants.
“It sits back [into the hillside] and doesn’t interfere with the aesthetics of the park,” Walker said.
Community leaders from the Tacony Civic Association, the Historical Society of Tacony and other organizations endorsed the project, despite the potentially controversial placement inside a city park.
Nutter and other city officials credited former City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, her successor, Bobby Henon, and state lawmakers for shepherding the project through government approvals and funding processes. ••