Retiring Phildelphia Fire Commissioner Defends Cutbacks

Retiring fire commissioner defends cutbacks Plan to close 4 ladder companies and 4 engine companies met with skepticism in Council.

By Anthony S. Twyman and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr.

Faced with a skeptical and sometimes hostile audience, Fire Commissioner Harold B. Hairston briefed City Council members Friday on his plans to shut down four engine companies and four ladder companies on July 1 to slash $6.78 million from his department's budget.

Council members whose districts would be affected led the charge against Hairston, several top Fire Department officials, and city Managing Director Philip R. Goldsmith.

"I don't know how I can convince any of my constituents that it is going to be just as safe," First District Councilman Frank DiCicco said.

DiCicco's district, which encompasses parts of South Philadelphia, Center City, and Port Richmond, will be most affected by the changes.

Fourth District Councilman Michael A. Nutter, whose district in Overbrook and Roxborough will also be affected, criticized Goldsmith and Mayor Street for not telling Council earlier about the changes.

"You expect anybody is going to be able to understand what this is all about over the next five days?" Nutter said, referring to the Thursday start of the 2005 fiscal year.

Goldsmith said the administration told Council in March that the cuts were coming.

Hairston said afterward that he didn't finalize the plan until recently because he had to see what Council was going to do on the budget.

Nevertheless, Hairston remained undaunted.

"I have absolute confidence in this plan," Hairston, 64, said. "This is more than an educated guess based on data that we have available to us."

The cuts represent the administration's attempt to balance a $3.4 billion operating budget. The administration originally asked Hairston to cut $13.8 million, but later reduced that to about $10 million, after Hairston objected, administration officials said.

Over Street's objections, Council on Monday approved a budget that pumped $4 million back into the Fire Department's budget, bringing the total amount Hairston had to cut to $6.78 million. Street is expected to make a decision Thursday, the start of the new fiscal year, on whether he will veto the new budget.

After the briefing, DiCicco said Council could explore transferring money into the Fire Department's budget when the new fiscal year starts, but warned that he didn't know where the money would come from.

Using charts and graphs, Hairston, who will retire as of Aug. 1, briefed Council on the details of his plan to eliminate the eight companies and add eight new medical units to comply with Street's budget request.

Under the plan, the city will shut down engine companies at 711 S. Broad St., Fourth and Arch Streets, Belgrade and Ontario Streets, and Ridge Avenue and Cinnaminson Street. It also will shut down ladder companies at 1541 Parrish St., Fourth and Arch, 12th and Reed Streets, and Belgrade and Huntingdon Streets.

While these companies will shut down, no fire stations will be closed, and there will be no layoffs. Engine companies carry water. Ladder companies do not; they specialize in rescues.

To address a shortage of emergency medical service technicians, Hairston also plans to add medical units 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.

The medical units will be on duty for 12 hours, instead of around the clock, Hairston said.

In addition, the administration plans to relocate a rescue company, a medical oversight unit, a field command unit and three ladder companies to fill in the gaps left by the other changes.

Hairston insisted that response time for emergencies will still be under the national norm of five minutes.

But many critics are skeptical. The local firefighters' union, for instance, has been lobbying Council members for weeks to reject the cuts. The union also has led protests.

Thomas O'Drain, president of the city firefighters' union, Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, criticized the administration Friday and questioned the analysis Hairston used to formulate his plan.

O'Drain took exception to how Hairston came up with the time it would take firefighters to respond to emergencies under the new plan.

"When you start actually traveling from one place to another, you have turns you have to make, so those mileage figures are off. They're not accurate," O'Drain said. "They should bring in a third party to come in here and do an independent impact study."

Hairston said he and his two deputy commissioners, John McGrath and Lloyd Ayers, conducted the study.

Hairston, a 40-year veteran of the department, said he was confident in the planning, which was in part based on response-time information from the city Planning Commission.

After the meeting, Goldsmith talked about plans to replace Hairston, who was first appointed in 1992 by Mayor Ed Rendell.

"The mayor and I are discussing it. We will make that known when we're ready to announce it," Goldsmith said, adding that it would be before Hairston leaves.

Street has at least a month to name a replacement. When John F. Timoney left as police commissioner in 2001, Street waited months before finally selecting Sylvester M. Johnson to replace him.

Some fire commanders believe there are three main contenders to replace Hairston, the department's first African American commissioner. Leading the pack is Ayers, 52, a 30-year veteran who serves as deputy commissioner of operations and is a former president of the Valiants, a black firefighters' organization.

Ayers is considered a "people-oriented guy," said one fire official, and once served as a battalion chief, one of the most respected jobs in the department.

Two other contenders are Deputy Chiefs Matthew McCrory and Thomas Garrity, who head firefighting operations in different sections of the city.

McCrory is a former deputy fire commissioner who voluntarily stepped back several years ago to deputy chief. Garrity has extensive experience in fire prevention and is credited with helping drastically reduce the number of fire deaths in the city.