Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers was feeling the heat this week as City Council’s Committee on Labor and Civil Service took him to task for a new plan to deploy firefighters in five-year rotations — a plan loudly opposed by the union.
“You will hear from many people today about why we shouldn’t do this,” said Ayers in his testimony. “I remind you that there are many more you won’t hear from today, but I certainly hear from them and they have been looking for this opportunity.”
Several members of Council — all of whom expressed their displeasure with the new plan from Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration — grilled Ayers for well over an hour Tuesday morning.
Administration officials announced the plan on Nov. 1 and it immediately caused an outcry from firefighters. Scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, it re-deploys 293 senior firefighters — those with 10 or more years of service — putting them into a five-year rotation, forcing them to work at firehouses across the city rather than the ones where they’ve spent the majority of their careers.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Bill Gault, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 22, told reporters at recent press conference. He did not testify Tuesday.
Gault has called the plan “vindictive” and said it would lead to unnecessary deaths. “Firefighting is a team game. Don’t break up the team. It’s a recipe for disaster. People will die. Fireman will die.”
A couple hundred firefighters packed the chamber Tuesday, punctuating the proceedings with shouted commentary and occasionally interrupting Ayers’ testimony. The commissioner refused to speak over the commotion, sitting stony faced until committee Chair Jim Kenney either waited out the noise, or brought the crowd back to order.
But the fiercest opposition came from members of the committee, who pressed Ayers relentlessly about the re-deployment plan.
“None of this makes any sense,” Kenney told Ayers.
Each member of council who spoke disapproved of the plan – largely echoing union objections. One also questioned the administration’s motives in implementing the re-deployment plan. Some have suggested that the plan is part of an administration effort to weaken the union.
“It’s being put into place to break that down,” said Councilman Mark Squilla.
Department commanders contend the plan is needed to increase the experience of firefighters by exposing them to a variety of settings and neighborhoods. Ayers acknowledged the union’s objections, but accused members of fear mongering to get their way.
“Change brings angst, but sometimes people need to know what to let go of,” he said. “The union has tried to scare the city of Philadelphia, our residents, into thinking that they are less safe.”
Local 22 has been feuding with the Nutter administration since 2008.
Twice an arbitrator has granted firefighters a contract, and twice the administration has appealed it. Last week a Common Pleas Court threw out the latest appeal by the administration, but insiders suggest that another appeal is likely.
Kenney blasted the mayor for the standoff over a contract.
“This is not necessarily directed at you,” Kenney said to Ayers. “But, some of the things people do in frustration – when over a five year period they are treated totally disrespectfully in every aspect of the employer/employee relationship. When what we have in this state is binding arbitration for uniformed employees who cannot strike and it,s appealed, and appealed, and appealed and appealed and going to probably be appealed again. You expect people to want to come to work in a cheerful manner when they’re treated so disrespectfully?”
He noted that contract negotiations with police have not been the same.
“This has been a tooth pull from the beginning,” Kenney said.
Ultimately, Council has little real authority in the matter, though members’ opposition to the plan does ratchet up the political pressure on the mayor.