The families are fired up
— Families of Philadelphia firefighters hold a rally to let the public know the fire department's brownouts and other issues have them seeing red.
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 is on record as deeply opposed to the city and fire department’s policy of “brownouts” — the rolling, temporary closures of some fire stations.
Now, the PFD Families Association is speaking out against the policy and engaging in an awareness and education campaign.
And high-powered communications specialist Frank Keel is launching a public service campaign.
The families group, which met last week at Local 22 and held an informational rally at the Pathmark store at Cottman Avenue and Oakley Street in Burholme, believes the brownouts put firefighters and the public in danger.
It’s fine, the women believe, for the fire department to put such an emphasis on having working smoke detectors on each floor of a home.
It’d be much safer for those residents, they argue, if their local fire station was fully operational.
“I never saw a smoke detector carry someone out of a burning building,” said Therese Garvin, whose husband Pete is a firefighter.
Garvin and the others are upset about more than brownouts.
Morale, they say, is on the decline. They blame the decision-making of fire department senior managers in areas of discipline, the grievance process, hiring and promotions.
Also, firefighters have been working without a contract for three years and haven’t received a cost-of-living raise. They are prohibited by law from going on strike, and their families agree that they would never strike or refuse to go into a burning building, no matter how bad their working conditions.
The Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) is also in jeopardy, families believe, because elected officials and some other city workers have ruined the program’s reputation among the public by “retiring” for one day then coming back to work.
Brownouts, though, are the immediate concern. They were implemented by the city to save money.
The families contend that brownouts delay response. A battalion chief’s car or a medic unit might arrive first at a fire that needs an engine to pump water and a ladder to ventilate and search the property and make rescues.
“Unless they’re all there together, the house will burn and people will die,” said Dawn Cooper, whose husband George has been a fireman for 20 years.
Garvin said she has a nurse friend who saw a woman have a heart attack on Holme Avenue and began administering CPR.
An ambulance arrived 20-something minutes later, according to the woman, and citizens began yelling at the medics.
“They should have been screaming at the commissioner and the mayor for all these cuts,” Garvin said.
Another sticking point for the families is the discipline and transfer of firefighters who get into accidents at intersections or sustain facial and neck burns, if it is determined they were improperly wearing their gear.
One argument against discipline is that the gear is not fireproof. Also, in a fire, the gear could be moved or knocked off, especially in extreme temperatures.
“These men and women are being punished simply for doing their job. It’s outrageous and demoralizing,” said Lisa Hogan, whose husband James is an active fireman and whose dad William Corcoran is a retired fireman.
Garvin spoke of a Ladder 15 firefighter who recently got “shanghai’ed” — transferred to an undesirable station — after suffering an injury in a blaze.
“Ask the two civilians he saved if he should have been punished,” Garvin said.
The families are glad Mayor Michael Nutter cannot run for another term, and they hope Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers retires. Ayers did not return a call for comment.
To spread the word about these issues, the families have a petition on change.org, are creating a Facebook page, are giving fliers to firefighters to take home for their loved ones and marched in the recent St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They’ll have a say in the next Local 22 newsletter.
They are encouraging the public to use red bulbs on their outdoor light fixtures, much the way some people use blue bulbs in support of police officers.
In addition, they have created posters that show the serious injuries suffered by firefighters.
The women will continue to have rallies outside supermarkets and other venues that attract large numbers of people.
They could camp out for a long time in Tacony.
“Engine 38 is always browned out,” Garvin said.
The Engine 38 station at State Road and Longshore Avenue was demolished in February 2009 to make way for an I-95 southbound entrance. Delayed construction continues at the new site, Keystone Street and Magee Avenue.
At the rallies, ribbons are given out to the public to signify which company is being browned out that day — red for ladder, black for engine and blue for medic.
The job is stressful enough, the women say, without the other issues. The department has a tradition and brotherhood, they think, that is under attack.
Keel’s theme is, “What Can Brown-Outs Do For You?” a takeoff on the UPS slogan.
One of his public service announcements shows a house on the 200 block of Sparks St. in Olney destroyed by a February 2011 fire that claimed the lives of two children. The nearby Engine 61 was closed the night of the fire.
“It’s meant to shock and is intentionally alarming,” he said of the scene of the house in rubble.
Keel, on behalf of Local 22, plans “in-your-face” newspaper advertisements and possibly radio and cable television commercials. He’ll also give copies of a documentary on the brownout issue to City Council members, and might help organize a giant rally outside City Hall.
One message will be that police officers get awards for heroic actions, while firefighters get punished and reassigned.
“It’s like being demoted to JV,” he said.
Keel said firefighters want respect from the city, and he said it would be nice for the administration to accept the next arbitration awards.
The brownout issue, according to Keel, is not going away.
“It’s only going to get hotter, no pun intended,” he said. ••