Fire "brownouts" take center stage in city council

PHILADELPHIA - October 19, 2010

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and Fire Union President Bill Gault blasted Mayor Michael Nutter's brownout plan, which he said would save the city some $3.8 million.

"I am absolutely, thoroughly convinced that closing of fire stations is not a responsible way to save money," said Blackwell.

The prime focus at the hearing was a fire back in August in West Philadelphia in which a 12-year-old boy died.

Nearby Engine 57 had come off a rolling brownout 57 minutes before the fire, but officials say it was no available for duty because rules required its full crew to drive across the city to pick up repaired equipment.

So, instead, a more distant fire company responded to the blaze.

Irate neighbors testified that took eight to 10 crucial minutes.

"Had the fire station at 56th and Chestnut been open, I doubt very seriously that we would have lost a life," said Block Captain Marvin Wilson.

"That little kid didn't have to die. Five houses didn't have to burn," said Gault.

Administration officials maintained that the more distant crew still responded quickly.

"The response time in the case of 55th Street was three minutes, thirteen seconds," said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.

The Nutter Administration continued to defend its brownout plan, arguing it is used similar "temporary deactivations" for decades.

The only difference is that some of the brownout personnel are used to staff other companies, which cuts the need for overtime.

Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison suggested that policy is what irks the union.

"This policy has gone on for 30 years. The only thing that is different about how the fire department runs today as opposed to how the department has run for 30 years is that we have removed the opportunity at making overtime. That's it," Gillison said.

The union countered that, in the temporary deactivations, it meant that the crews were in training and could be activated quickly if there was a big fire. That is not the case, they say, with brownouts.

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