Letter: Philly firefighters betrayed by deep funding cuts, poor leadership

The following is a letter to the editor. It’s content is independent of NEast Philly’s editorial team.

Since the day I was born, I have loved a Philadelphia firefighter.

In 1975, my father was hired by the City as a firefighter and three years later, I was born. Children of firefighters and paramedics have to share their parent with the citizens of Philadelphia. We spent many holidays, birthdays and special occasions missing our dad because he had to work. Like it or not, that is part of the sacrifice we had to make. We were taught to support each other because our father’s job was a tough and dangerous one and he could be killed doing it. That is also part of the sacrifice and we accepted it because we loved our dad and he loved the job.

All over the city, families of firefighters and paramedics continue to sacrifice while the “leaders” of this city have made our loved ones’ jobs more dangerous and stressful than ever. Fourteen years ago, I married a firefighter. He is my best friend and we have four children together. I often think about if something was to happen to him, how will I raise our children without him? How would I tell our four children that their daddy is never coming home from work? I’ve planned his funeral and written a eulogy, “just in case.”  Perhaps  it sounds like I worry too much or like I’m being dramatic, and I hope that is true. I hope I never have to face those things or follow through with my planning, but the reality is that my husband’s job is dangerous and it has been made even more so by years of deep funding cuts to the fire department compounded by poor leadership.

The truth is that every citizen, business owner, employee and visitor to this city faces heightened danger because of these cuts. Many have died because of these cuts. When as taxpaying citizens will we say that enough is enough?  When will we demand the protections that we pay for and deserve?

Lessons learned from “Fast Eddie”  

Ed Rendell was elected Mayor of Philadelphia in 1991. The City had massive fiscal debt and “Fast Eddie” decided to balance the budget on the backs of firefighters, paramedics and other hard working middle class Philadelphians. Rendell slashed the starting salaries of firefighters by $6,000, landing some firefighters in the food stamp line.  He cut wages and sick time and scaled back firefighters’ pensions. Rendell cut the Fire Department’s health plan so drastically that it was difficult to find dentists that would accept our plan because they said that welfare recipients had a better plan than we did.

Rendell’s administration cut fire services to the public. They routinely understaffed firehouses to save money, resulting in more injuries to both firefighters and citizens. When John Street was elected mayor in 1999, we hoped things would improve, but Street continued cutting public safety, causing injury to both firefighters and civilians.

Life under Tyranny

In November of 2007, I went to my local polling place and pulled the lever for Michael Nutter for Mayor of Philadelphia. I was hopeful that under his leadership, we would bring Philadelphia back to the thriving metropolis that it once was.  After all, it was Councilman Michael Nutter who stood up against public service cuts to then-Mayor John Street. Boy was I wrong!  Since Nutter’s election, firefighters and their families have been under attack. Local 22, the Philadelphia Firefighters & Paramedics Union, enters into what is supposed to be binding arbitration with the City of Philadelphia to negotiate pay and benefits for its members. Ours was the first union to say no to the mayor’s plan to furlough city workers.

In 2009, Local 22 won a fair contract award in arbitration with modest pay raises and no furloughs.  The mayor has since declared war on the union and its members.  He has appealed the award twice, losing both appeals, yet he still refuses to institute the contract.  Now, the mayor is using the courts as his stalling method while he drags the firefighters through legal challenge after legal challenge. Local 22 continues to win these challenges, so why is the mayor wasting taxpayer money to continuously fight them? In fact, it’s been reported, that since 2008, the city has spent over $1 million in taxpayer dollars towards legal fees in their battle against Local 22.

In August 2010, Mayor Nutter instituted his dangerous and deadly policy of rolling brownouts throughout the city.  Everyday a total of six engine companies are temporarily placed out of service to save the city money. However, brownouts do not save money; they actually cost the city money. Firefighter injuries are up, citizens have died due to the brownouts and the city is losing money. Why continue the policy? As of the second quarter of 2013, the Fire Department’s has paid out $10 million more in overtime than it originally budgeted. The brownouts policy is only one tactic of many in an agenda of shrinking the Fire Department’s workforce over many years. When the Mayor closed seven fire companies in 2009, we lost 147 positions in the Fire Department on top of 200 unfilled positions due to a hiring freeze implemented in 2007. At this point, the Department is down approximately 400 positions between the hiring freeze, the closures and jobs lost through attrition.

In July of 2012, after Local 22 won the second appeal of its contract fight, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers sent out a memo putting firefighters and paramedics on notice that there was a new social media policy. The policy is so far reaching that the ACLU is concerned that it violates firefighter’s rights to free speech. Could it be that this policy is being used to silence firefighters and paramedics who have been vocal about the dangerous policies and unsafe working conditions they are forced to work under?

In December of 2012, Commissioner Lloyd Ayers changed the shifts that Philadelphia Firefighters have been working for the past 40 years. The new shift has firefighters arriving home after 8 p.m. on their day works. This shift not only negatively impacts firefighters’ lives, but the lives of their families. It takes time away from family time, which we all hold so valuable.  Young children of firefighters no long have the opportunity to say goodnight to their moms and dads who are still at work when they go to bed. My children can no longer go to bed with the assurance that daddy has made it home from what is often another dangerous day at work. Husbands and wives have less time to spend together and firefighters have less time to relax after a stressful day of work before having to wake up and do it all again early the next morning.

In January of 2013, the Fire Commissioner began the policy of mass transfers of experienced firefighters from station to station. Due to safety concerns, firefighters and city council pleaded with the commissioner to wait until more information was available before beginning this program. In November of 2012 Councilman Bobby Henon wrote a letter to Mayor Nutter and Commissioner Ayers that best describes the concerns. These are his words:

“First and foremost, I believe the sudden reassignment of so many experienced firefighters will make our city less safe. In less than two months, hundreds of firefighters will be forced to navigate unfamiliar communities, charge into unfamiliar buildings, and mesh with unfamiliar teams. Response times will undoubtedly increase, putting Philadelphians throughout the City at greater risk. Potential confusion at the scene of a fire or health emergency – due to a lack of familiarity with local streets, building layouts or fellow first responders – could further jeopardize the safety of members of the public and our firehouses.”  

City council and the members of the Philadelphia Fire Department know that this policy is a harmful and dangerous one, so why would the commissioner not take time to consider their concerns? Firefighters and paramedics have stressful jobs and that stress often flows over into their family life. It is not easy to bear witness to the things these brave men and women do on a daily basis and not be affected by it.  The mayor and administration of the Philadelphia Fire Department have been putting these brave heroes through hell while claiming that it is all in the name of improving the department or saving money.

Everyday, this administrations hands out harsh and often unfair “discipline” like it is candy. Firefighters and paramedics live in constant fear of losing their jobs. Morale is low and that is how the mayor and commissioner want it.  They want to beat these brave men and women into the ground so that they can get contract concessions out of them. They care little about the toll it takes on our heroes or about the price our families and communities pay because of their funding cuts. This is not leadership and this is not what the people of Philadelphia elected Mayor Nutter to do.

Lisa Hogan is a member of the PFD Families Association, wife of a Philadelphia firefighter, and proud advocate for the brave heroes who risk their lives for our safety.

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