Audit: Philly Firefighters Often Late to the Fire

Audit counts 45,000 occasions when emergency responders didn't arrive on time.

fire department

Updated with comment from Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s farewell present to outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter? A reminder of the ugly early years of Nutter’s administration, when recession-driven belt-tightening forced unwanted — and unpopular — choices.

One of those choices? The “brownout” policy, implemented in 2010, that cut the Philadelphia Fire Department budget by shutting down three fire companies per shift per day, and rotating firefighters away from their usual stations to fill in at other locations. It was only in 2014 that the administration began to back away from the policy

But the damage was done, Butkovitz said in an audit released Wednesday morning. His office counted nearly 45,000 fire emergencies over the years in which it took the first engine more than five minutes and 20 seconds to arrive.  More than 1,500 emergencies were in progress for eight minutes before firefighters arrive. (See the audit below.)

The National Fire Protection Association says the standard should be met 90 percent of the time; the Philadelphia Fire Department met it just 75 percent of the time in 2014.

“It’s extremely alarming that tens of thousands of fire emergencies did not have an engine on scene within the national standard time,” Butkovitz said in a statement announcing the report.

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said he needed to examine Butkovitz’s report, but added that the audit’s numbers — and conclusions — didn’t sound quite right to him.

He said it appeared Butkovitz’s report conflates “fire suppression incidents” — actual structure fires — with a different category of call that doesn’t require the same speed of response. And Sawyer noted that correlation is not the same as causation, suggesting that Butkovitz failed to prove the brownout policy is responsible for late responses. “I don’t think he’s shown any factual evidence that it is,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer added: “I’m going to use the same numbers he used and see if I come up with the same results.”

Even by Butkovitz’s accounting, Philly didn’t meet the NFPA standard prior to the brownout policy — instead hitting the timeline 80 percent of the time or more. One other caveat: Even amidst brownout, Philadelphia set a record in 2013 for fewest fire fatalities in a year, with 24 — which was one fewer than the previous record low of 25 deaths in 2012. In 2007, the year before Nutter took office, there were 47 fatalities.