City plans to phase out Fire Dept. brownouts

In the con­tinuum of con­ten­tious­ness between the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion and the mem­bers of the Phil­adelphia’s fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics uni­on, brown­outs in par­tic­u­lar stick in the uni­on’s craw.

Brown­outs are the may­or’s con­tro­ver­sial policy of shut­ting down se­lec­ted fire com­pan­ies tem­por­ar­ily on a ro­tat­ing basis as a cost-cut­ting meas­ure. But mem­bers of Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers don’t think that a few mil­lion dol­lars in sav­ings to the de­part­ment’s an­nu­al over­time ex­pendit­ures is worth risk­ing the safety of ci­vil­ians and fire­fight­ers. The ad­min­is­tra­tion in­sists that the pro­gram doesn’t com­prom­ise safety.

Ini­ti­ated in 2010, brown­outs have been so po­lar­iz­ing that uni­on of­fi­cials were shocked to hear Nut­ter’s dir­ect­or of pub­lic safety testi­fy to a City Coun­cil com­mit­tee on April 29 that the ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes to end the pro­gram.

“We are ex­plor­ing the pos­sib­il­ity that we may be able to end or severely cur­tail the use of brown­outs,” Mi­chael Res­nick told Coun­cil’s Com­mit­tee on Labor and Civil Ser­vice in pre­pared re­marks.

Res­nick test­i­fied re­gard­ing a pending bill that would es­tab­lish new pro­to­cols for the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­fore it could “tem­por­ar­ily or per­man­ently re­duce or elim­in­ate en­gine or lad­der com­pan­ies.” The pro­posed or­din­ance calls for pub­lic no­tice and hear­ings, along with com­pre­hens­ive stud­ies of the po­ten­tial im­pact of fire com­pany re­duc­tions on the city’s fin­ances and on pub­lic safety. The bill also would al­low for bind­ing ar­bit­ra­tion to settle a uni­on chal­lenge to fire com­pany re­duc­tions.

The Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion op­poses the bill be­cause, ac­cord­ing to Res­nick, it seeks to “re­lo­cate de­cision-mak­ing au­thor­ity on clos­ures and re­duc­tions from the fire de­part­ment’s highly trained lead­ers to labor ar­bit­rat­ors with no ex­pert­ise in work­er or pub­lic safety.”

Loc­al 22 Pres­id­ent Joe Schulle thinks that City Hall has already taken the de­cision-mak­ing away from the ex­perts in the fire de­part­ment, cit­ing Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers’ own testi­mony dur­ing Coun­cil’s Fisc­al 2014 budget hear­ings last spring.

Dur­ing those hear­ings, Coun­cil­man Dav­id Oh asked Ay­ers if he be­lieved that brown­outs should con­tin­ue. Ay­ers replied, “If I could have the brown­outs dis­con­tin­ued, I would dis­con­tin­ue them. Right now … they’re con­trib­ut­ing to the budget and the safety of the cit­izens has not been di­min­ished.”

Fur­ther, Ay­ers said that it would be the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to provide fund­ing for the elim­in­a­tion of brown­outs.

“The fire de­part­ment has the highly skilled pro­fes­sion­als. But [the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion is] not al­low­ing them to make the de­cision. What’s hap­pen­ing now is the ad­min­is­tra­tion is mak­ing the de­cision,” Schulle told the North­east Times last week.

Ay­ers, in his 2014 budget testi­mony, ad­ded that the brown­out pro­gram saves the city $3.8 mil­lion per year in fire­fight­er over­time ex­pendit­ures. But those sav­ings don’t go back in­to fire de­part­ment op­er­a­tions. Rather, they be­ne­fit the city’s gen­er­al fund.

In Fisc­al 2014, the fire de­part­ment’s op­er­at­ing budget is about $219 mil­lion, while the city’s is about $3.75 bil­lion. Even with the brown­outs pro­gram in place, the fire de­part­ment over-spent about $7.2 mil­lion on over­time in Fisc­al 2013, bey­ond the budgeted amount for that year. Fisc­al 2014 over­time spend­ing totals are not yet avail­able.

Nut­ter has pro­posed a $4.49 bil­lion city budget for Fisc­al 2015, which in­cludes a one-time pay­ment of $700 mil­lion in­to the city’s pen­sion fund with pro­ceeds garnered from the sale of the Phil­adelphia Gas Works. The may­or’s pro­posed fire de­part­ment spend­ing is $207 mil­lion for Fisc­al 2015.

Schulle said that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has nev­er ap­proached the uni­on to dis­cuss end­ing brown­outs, but he’s glad to hear it’s be­ing con­sidered. After the April 29 Coun­cil com­mit­tee hear­ing, Res­nick re­portedly told KYW News­ra­dio that a de­cision on brown­outs likely would not come un­til this fall. Ay­ers re­portedly told the ra­dio sta­tion that next year would be a more likely scen­ario, con­sid­er­ing the de­part­ment’s on­go­ing ef­forts to over­haul its de­liv­ery of emer­gency med­ic­al ser­vices. Loc­al 22 of­fi­cials will be watch­ing closely.

“Of course, we’re go­ing to push it in the com­ing months if noth­ing changes,” Schulle said.

Mean­while, the ad­min­is­tra­tion and uni­on re­main in ar­bit­ra­tion over a new labor con­tract for Loc­al 22 fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics. Uni­on mem­bers have been work­ing without a con­tract tech­nic­ally since Ju­ly 1, the day after their last four-year deal (which also was achieved through ar­bit­ra­tion) ex­pired. However, the ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­tu­ally with­held raises and oth­er terms pre­scribed by that con­tract un­til Septem­ber, when city at­tor­neys de­cided to drop their leg­al chal­lenges to the con­tract. The city paid uni­on raises and be­ne­fits in­creases ret­ro­act­ively.

Ac­cord­ing to Schulle, a three-mem­ber ar­bit­ra­tion pan­el has con­cluded its form­al hear­ings and is now meet­ing privately with at­tor­neys for both sides. Ses­sions are sched­uled through Au­gust. At the con­clu­sion of meet­ings, the pan­el will have 30 days to is­sue a writ­ten award. Ac­cord­ing to Schulle, the pan­el may de­cide to meet bey­ond Au­gust or con­clude the ses­sions be­fore then.

Among the three ar­bit­rat­ors, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has se­lec­ted one and the uni­on one. The third pan­el mem­ber is con­sidered the “neut­ral” ar­bit­rat­or. A ma­jor­ity vote of the pan­el is re­quired to ap­prove an award. ••

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