Coming Philadelphia Fire-Company Cuts Evoke Contrasting Scenarios

To hear the Street administration tell it, public safety will not be compromised when four Fire Department ladder companies and four engine companies shut down on July 1.

To hear some firefighters tell it, people might die because crews will be unable to get to homes and businesses in time to keep fires from raging out of control.

Fire Commissioner Harold B. Hairston's announcement Monday that he plans to close eight fire companies and create eight new emergency medical units to trim roughly $7 million from his department's budget is stirring controversy in neighborhoods and among firefighters across the city.

Although engine companies in Center City, Old City, Port Richmond and Roxborough will be closing and ladder companies in Fairmount, Old City, Port Richmond and Wharton in South Philadelphia will be shut down, Hairston insisted yesterday that the plan would not jeopardize public safety.

"We have a very, very efficient operation and we have some very, very well-trained people, and because of that they are able to get on location very quickly... and there's nothing that's going to change that," Hairston said in an interview at the department's headquarters. His plan, formed at the request of the administration, includes no layoffs and no fire stations closed in their entirety.

A ladder company specializes in rescues and consists of a fire vehicle with a ladder staffed by one officer and four firefighters with such equipment as the Jaws of Life extraction device. The company's annual operating cost is $1.2 million. An engine company carries water to extinguish fires. It has a fire engine staffed by one officer and three firefighters and annually costs about $950,000 to operate.

Some of the savings from closing the eight ladder and engine companies will be offset by opening the eight new medical units. They will be at 63d Street and Lancaster Avenue, Fourth Street and Snyder Avenue, 1541 Parrish St., Belgrade and Ontario Streets, Belgrade and Huntingdon Streets, Washington and Moyamensing Avenues, Fourth and Arch Streets, and Foulkrod and Langdon Streets.

Hairston, who is to retire next month, said the restructuring was done after analysis showed a substantial increase in emergency service calls and a drop in reports of structure fires. The new system, he said, will let firefighters spend more time fighting fires instead of making emergency medical calls.

Fire Department statistics show that from July 1, 1989, to June 30, 2003, calls for emergency medical services shot up more than 80 percent, from 108,289 in fiscal 1990 to 195,504 in fiscal 2003, while structure fires decreased by nearly half, from 4,636 to 2,466.

But some firefighters say the administration's plan will not work in a densely populated city such as Philadelphia.

"To me, balancing a budget on the back of public safety is not the way to go," said Thomas O'Drain, president of Local 22, the Philadelphia chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters. He also said the cuts come at a bad time, because 385 firefighters retired in December and the department has not filled more than 200 of those positions.

Hairston said the department planned to fill many of those positions, probably with new emergency medical service personnel. "Our focus needs to be on hiring paramedics right now," he said, adding that in the meantime he had compensated by having firefighters work more overtime.

One of the engine companies being eliminated is Engine Company 28 at Belgrade and Ontario Streets in the Port Richmond section. Throughout that neighborhood yesterday, bright green posters reading "No Fire Department Cutbacks" were seen on many houses.

"We're going to be losing the water to put out the fires," said Paul Merz, who lives on Belgrade Street. "It's going to be more dangerous around here."