Pulse: Chatter: Feuds: Burn Notice

Firefighters are raging over Nutter’s latest cuts. But should they be?

Budget cuts burned down Regina Anderson’s house in Frankford. That’s what the firefighters union has been saying, loudly, in rallies with signs like “Burn, Nutter, Burn!” and “Fire Department Cutbacks Kill.” The Mayor and fire commissioner Lloyd Ayers took away engines from five fire stations, including the one 350 feet from Anderson’s home — which ultimately forced Regina and her five children, ages seven months to eight years, to move into a motel after an engine from another station got to their house too late to save it.

Commissioner Ayers counters that his department arrived at Anderson’s fire within the nationally mandated response time; further, “When we examined that young lady’s house, she didn’t have smoke alarms, which we give out for free. And the fire was caused by the misuse of a space heater.”

To the union, that misses the point entirely: If emergency services are cut back, lives might — will — be lost. “There are now five firehouses in Philadelphia that cannot extinguish fire,” firefighters union head Brian McBride says.

Commissioner Ayers: “There were 2,897 structure fires in Philadelphia in 1998. In 2008, there were 1,791. That’s a dramatic decrease.” And indeed, it’s a long-term trend; fires throughout the city have decreased 60 percent since 1990, at least in part because of increased use of smoke detectors and better fireproofing. The number of city fire companies didn’t decrease at all, however, until Mayor Nutter decided that saving $10 million a year by putting under-used equipment in mothballs — Engine 14, the firehouse half a block from Anderson’s home, averaged one structure-fire call per week in 2007 — had become a budget imperative. The cuts, made early this year, also included two ladder companies.   

Which got Brian McBride roaring “Mayor Nutter has squandered the safety and security of this city!” outside fire headquarters on Spring Garden Street.
“We look at what we do as education, to prevent fire in the first place,” Commissioner Ayers points out, calmly. “That’s the crux of everything we do.”