Philadelphia Firefighters Rally Against Proposed Cuts

About 700 people protested yesterday outside City Hall to decry Mayor Street's plan to shut down four ladder companies and four engine companies starting tomorrow to save the city nearly $7 million.

The protesters included residents, City Council members, union leaders and firefighters, some of whom came from fire companies in New Jersey.

Many carried lime-green signs that said, Fire Department Cutbacks Kill, as they marched from the headquarters of Local 22 of the firefighters' union, at Fifth and Willow Streets, down Fourth Street to Market Street, and then to City Hall.

"We are here today to send a blunt message to our city's uncaring administration," Local 22 president Thomas O'Drain told the protesters once they arrived at City Hall. "Mayor Street, don't impose a death sentence on some of your citizens and your firefighters."

City officials, however, maintain that the cuts will not jeopardize the safety of residents or firefighters.

"What they're trying to do is scare the people of Philadelphia," said Philip Goldsmith, the city's managing director, in an interview after the rally.

Goldsmith said the cuts were made after an "exhaustive study" in order to "realign our resources."

The two-hour protest was in response to Fire Commissioner Harold B. Hairston's announcement last week that the administration plans to close the eight companies starting July 1. Hairston also said he would create eight new medical units to respond to a nearly 80 percent increase in calls for emergency medical services and a nearly 50 percent drop in structure fires since 1989.

Although the administration plans to close the eight companies, the firehouses will remain open, staffed by emergency medical or other personnel. It will not be laying off any firefighters.

The administration also plans to relocate six Fire Department units to help cover areas of the city. Goldsmith said the changes would take place over the next four to six weeks.

One of the units the administration plans to relocate is Ladder 23 at 10th and Cherry Streets in Chinatown. It will be moved to Fourth Street and Girard Avenue.

Chester Fung, a Chinatown business owner and former president of the Chinatown Benevolent Association, led a group of about 80 protesters from Chinatown who joined the rally at 10th and Market Streets.

"This is a ridiculous decision to remove our ladder from the firehouse," Fung said through a bullhorn.

Harold A. Shaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, threatened to bring the force of his 265,000-member national union to bear on the city if it implements the cuts tomorrow, the start of the new fiscal year.

"I'm not going to let some paper-pushing, bean counter say, 'It's a good idea.' " Shaitberger said.

O'Drain said they want the mayor to hold off on the cuts until an independent analysis can be done to show whether the administration's plan will increase the time it takes firefighters to respond to emergencies.

Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district encompasses parts of South Philadelphia, Center City and Port Richmond and would receive most of the cuts, called the administration's plans "stupid." Council members Brian J. O'Neill, Jack Kelly, Joan L. Krajewski, James F. Kenney, Marian B. Tasco and Michael A. Nutter also joined DiCicco at the rally.

The engine companies closing are located at 711 S. Broad St., Fourth and Arch Streets, Belgrade and Ontario Streets, and Ridge Avenue and Cinnaminson Street. The ladder companies closing are located at 1541 Parrish St., Fourth and Arch Streets, 12th and Reed Streets, and Belgrade and Huntingdon Streets.