Fire Departments Turn To Courts To Stave Off Cutbacks

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- When budget cuts are proposed in many city departments, enraged staffers often march on city hall. But firefighters faced with tough cuts are increasingly heading straight to court.

Emergency personnel around the country are aggressively challenging the legality of job cuts and station closings. They argue the cutbacks violate their bargaining rights and unnecessarily endanger the public.

``Right now the struggles of the economy overall have really cut into the tax base of local economies,'' said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Firefighters. ``So we've just had a rash of places where they're just letting firefighters go.''

Nowhere is the move toward legal action more evident than in Pennsylvania, where the state's two largest cities are embroiled in legal battles with firefighters. Pittsburgh firefighters sued July 24, contending plans to cut 168 of 816 firefighters as part of the city's financial recovery plan violate their bargaining rights and put residents in danger.

Philadelphia firefighters won an injunction from a judge in June, putting off the proposed closings of four engine companies and four ladder companies. The union argued that the cuts, which would save $6.78 million, could put lives at risk.

``My view on the whole thing is that they should be funding the public safety first,'' said Tom O'Drain, president of the Philadelphia firefighters union. ``I'm hoping that (this month) we can just go back to council and see what they can do with the budget.''

The city has made cuts in other areas, including the elimination of the Arts and Culture Office. But firefighters say they're not getting a fair shake and have gone on a public offensive, hanging up posters around the city and setting up a Web site. Their anger grew last month, when two firefighters were killed battling a house fire.

Pennsylvania is hardly alone. In Cleveland, the firefighters union sued to restore some jobs that were lost in initial cost-cutting moves. The city proposed cutting 150 firefighters, but reduced that to about 70 after a court battle and mediation, union President Bob Fisher said.

Much like Pittsburgh, firefighters in the financially troubled city of Waterbury, Conn., are in court over reductions being made by an oversight panel. The panel proposed cutting about 70 positions in March, but the union says the city could do well _ and save $1.5 million _ by cutting just 28.

Daniel French, president of the Waterbury Firefighters Association, said the firefighters don't want to bankrupt the city. But he said the cuts don't need to be so drastic. ``We're going to court to use the only defense we have,'' French said.

City officials say they are doing the best job they can to maintain public safety and stay within their budgets, while also disagreeing with unions on how safety assessments are made.

Barbara Grant, spokeswoman for Philadelphia Mayor John Street, said the city carefully studied emergency response logs, finding that medical calls had gone up, while the number of structure fires had gone down. The city needed to shift resources, she said, without closing entire firehouses.

``We're committed to our position,'' she said. ``We have a very, very difficult budget to look at.''

Debates over fire department staffing long have wreaked havoc on city budgets. Competing studies conducted by firefighters and local officials have often come to different conclusions on whether reductions can be made safely.

Public policy experts say it's difficult to assess the adequacy of staffing at fire departments since they all operate under different circumstances. One researcher at New York University said there's no question that demands are higher on firefighters since Sept. 11, 2001.

``There certainly are a lot more demands being placed on fire departments with all the new responsibilities of homeland security,'' said Tim Raducha, director of research and programs for NYU's Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has spent more than $23 billion on emergency preparedness, but most of it has gone toward equipment, not personnel, Raducha said. The government also faces challenges, he said, because of budget constraints.

``It's a challenge of an effective partnership. I don't think the blame can be placed at the federal, state or local level,'' said Raducha, adding that making federal emergency funds more flexible could help with staffing concerns.

Significant cuts are being made in some places, most notably New York. Budget constraints and shifting populations recently forced the closure of six fire companies there, despite a public outcry.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association in New York says cities need to be careful they don't go too far.

``If you keep stretching a rubber band and stretching a rubber band, without getting it any more length, eventually it's going to burst,'' UFA spokesman Tom Butler said.