Our Contrarian says we could do without half of them — and if they really cared about public safety, they’d admit as much.
The tussle over a new work contract for Philadelphia’s firefighters took a strange turn this summer when an independent arbitration panel decided that the city can’t shut down any of the fire department’s redundant engine and ladder companies until a union-approved consultant issues an impact report. City officials claim the ruling far exceeds the normal bounds of labor negotiations, but perhaps the panelists should be forgiven for overreacting. They were likely spooked, as much of the city has been, by a firefighters union that forecasts deadly daily holocausts if one single firefighter is ever put out of a job.
In each of the past three budget seasons, the Street administration has tried to downsize our increasingly underused fire department, and the firefighters union has reacted with fear-mongering so brazen, it would make Dick Cheney blush. Union leaders distributed posters featuring a skull and crossbones and the warning: “Fire Department cuts will place you in DANGER!” They marched through Port Richmond with an ash-smudged baby doll tacked to a placard that screamed “THIS COULD BE YOUR CHILD!” They revved up a website full of panicky bombast called “SavePFD.com.” It’s a brand of shameless histrionics that no other city union would ever stoop to, and for a very good reason. The city needs every cop, teacher and sanitation worker it can afford. Firefighters? That’s another story.
Simply put, fire isn’t half the problem it used to be. Last year, the Philadelphia fire department answered 53 percent fewer calls to homes and businesses than it did a mere 16 years ago. Construction codes have improved, smoking is on the decline, the population is smaller, and North Philly has just about run out of vacant-warehouse kindling. The number of city fire companies, however, hasn’t changed since 1989, and with the low call volume, some stations are gathering cobwebs. A blue-ribbon panel appointed by the Mayor revealed in 2004 that several firehouses scramble into action less than once per week. In a city that averages fewer than seven fires per day, there’s just not enough work for 60 engine companies and 29 ladder companies stuffed 24/7 with four- and five-person crews. On any given day, a good number of Philadelphia’s firefighters are about as necessary as salad forks at Wing Bowl.
It’s a terrible waste of money and manpower, but the real scandal is that the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) division of the fire department is vastly overworked and undermanned. Daily ambulance runs have nearly doubled since 1990, and EMS units are catching hell for taking 20 minutes or more to show up. That’s why the Street administration has been trying to shift the fire department’s workload away from firefighting and toward EMS. By closing eight engine and ladder companies and starting eight new EMS units, the city could put its resources where they can make the biggest difference, saving $7 million a year in the process.
When this plan first surfaced, our famously prickly mayor immediately aroused suspicions that he was picking on the fire department or trying to embarrass some of his enemies on City Council. But Street is hardly alone among big-city mayors in trying to reduce the fiscal drain of underemployed firefighters. Fire calls are way down in cities all over the country, and mayors in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New York have all made cutbacks while facing the same hysterical flak from the fire unions.
The Street plan, rational as it is, has been met with irrational fear in the neighborhoods, stoked by a fire union that disguises its featherbedding with the pretense of civic concern. The public, in turn, avoids looking at the firefighters’ claims with any real scrutiny, perhaps because firefighters are the only purely heroic civil servants we have. The work is undeniably dangerous, and unlike the cop who writes you a ticket or the teacher who makes your kid go stand in the corner, a firefighter is there only to help. Most of us don’t care what they do with the rest of their time — so long as they stay close by and ready.
This is where the firefighters have got the public hosed. Try as they might to paint fire as a deadly foe ready to strike anywhere, anytime, the union leaders know very well that the overwhelming majority of fatal house fires take place in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, in residences without working smoke alarms. That’s a national trend, too — most fire fatalities are suffered by the old, the poor and the disabled.
If union leaders would only put a cork in their catastrophizing for five minutes, they’d admit that closing just one engine company (estimated savings: $1 million per year) might save 10 or 20 lives annually — if the cash were used to provide the city’s 100,000 lowest-income households with $10 smoke alarms. They would also admit that the number one on-the-job killer of firefighters isn’t fire or smoke inhalation — it’s heart attacks. Inactivity is proving more deadly to firefighters than flames.
The brutal truth is that the city would probably be a better, safer place if half the city’s fire stations were shut down and the freed-up dollars were put toward hiring more paramedics, bulk-ordering smoke alarms, enforcing the fire code, and automating traffic signals to turn green for emergency vehicles. Relocating the reduced number of fire stations to modern facilities on major streets would make sense, too. To this day, some of the city’s firehouses happen to be on hilltops, because when they were built, those locations made fire runs easier on the horses.
It would be nice to see the fire union give the fear-mongering a rest long enough to start working with the city on these kinds of plans. Meanwhile, we’re left to guess how low your self-respect has to fall for you to march in the streets for the right to work at a firehouse that gets one call per week. Volunteering to surrender such a dubious privilege, on the other hand, would qualify as an authentic act of civic duty. Some might even call it heroic.