PHILADELPHIA’S FIRE DEPARTMENT BROWNOUTS: THE TALE OF THE TAPE

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As a firefighter who has worked in West Philadelphia, worked in Engine 57 as well as Engine 68 and many of the other West Philly companies at one time or another in my career, I knew immediately that Engine 57 not being available to respond to this fire was a MAJOR PROBLEM as soon as I heard what happened. There is no doubt in my mind that Engine 57 being two blocks away would have had a legitimate shot to save this boy. At the very least they would have kept the fire from extending to FOUR houses. To say otherwise is an insult to the firefighters involved. The news is finally reporting on the story with more facts after three days of disinformation. LINK

Firefighters union leaders Monday challenged the city’s timeline in the fire death of a 12-year-old boy Saturday night, and continued to assail old and new city policies that they say slowed the department’s response.

Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters released data from the city’s National Fire Incident Response System connected to the call that came in at 6:51 p.m. Saturday.

It showed that the first responder to the fire at 137 S. 55th St. took three minutes, 42 seconds, to get there. Fire officials on Sunday had simply said the response time was “three minutes,” which the union criticized as a serious understatement when seconds count.

There is NO WAY ENGINE 68 can get there within three minutes. See the map. What is left out is Engine 41, the NEXT CLOSEST engine company was on a call as well! Engine 68 is actually THIRD IN at this address and wouldn’t have even been called out on the initial alarm for a house fire!

 

THE COMPANIES INVOLVED. ONLY IN PHILLY CAN YOU CLOSE A FIRE STATION AND IT WILL HAVE NO BEARING ON THE NEXT FIRE THAT BREAKS OUT!

 

First on the scene was a battalion chief in an SUV, who had no ability to fight the fire. Fire Commissioner Lloyd M. Ayers said the first fire company on the scene, Engine 68, arrived immediately after the chief and went to work.

Union officials, however, said members on Engine 68 said they did not arrive until at least 60 seconds after the chief, which would push the response time close to five minutes.

The Chief leaves the station first in his command vehicle (an SUV) and is blocks ahead of the engine and ladder as they navigate the big trucks through tiny, congested city streets. Duh. It’s nothing for them to be a minute ahead of us especially on longer runs.

City data do not indicate when the first engine or ladder companies arrived. Whether such a discrepancy in time and the city’s policy of “rolling brownouts” played a role in the death of the 12-year-old autistic boy is being bitterly disputed.

But they DO know the time the Chief arrived because his report is on tape and is part of the record. The other companies arrived afterward. The other companies didn’t want to waste time trying to get through to the radio room just to announce their arrival because SECONDS COUNT. They went into service immediately upon arrival.

Ayers identified the boy as Frank Marasco. His body had not been released to his family Monday evening, as the medical examiner was still completing an autopsy. Family members could not be reached for comment Monday night.

The four-man crew of firefighters on Engine 57 normally would have responded first to a fire at that location because its station is 21/2 blocks away.

But that crew was not available when the call came in at 6:51 p.m. It was gone from 6 to 10 p.m. retrieving an ambulance and an engine at the city maintenance shop at Front Street and Hunting Park Avenue, 91/2 miles away. City policy requires a full company to travel from its station to pick up repaired apparatus.

“It’s an idiotic policy, and it makes no sense,” said Michael Bresnan, recording secretary for Local 22. Bresnan said light-duty officers or other personnel should be sent to retrieve equipment while the company remains in service with a backup truck.

Ayers said engine companies are sent to pick up their trucks because they have to reattach hoses and test their equipment. Fire companies also are sometimes sent to pick up repaired ambulances, to allow medic units, which receive more calls, to stay in service.

To a man EVERY FIREFIGHTER IN THE CITY LOATHES THIS POLICY. It was instituted a few years ago by a now retired Chief who thought he could make the Paramedics get back on the street faster if the firefighters went to the shop to retrieve their ambulances. It’s a bad policy that should have been changed years ago. It highlights the disarray of our maintenance system. We desperately need a motor pool for reserve trucks, somewhere close to the shop. We could use light duty or staff members to move apparatus around when needed instead of taking companies off the street.

This is typical of the Fire Department thinking. A major reduction of companies is implemented yet we are supposed to function as if everything is still the same. There is no adjustment in our daily operation to account for the loss of so many companies, so much manpower. The Chief working that day was faced with the loss of one of his engine companies due to the brownouts. Now he needs to pick up some trucks from the shop and is faced with losing ANOTHER engine company for HOURS. He deferred the move to the night shift probably thinking he would at least maintain the same coverage as when browned out. How would you like to have to make those kind of choices in your everyday life?

From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Engine 57, at 5559 Chestnut St., was browned out as part of the city’s system of rolling closures that began Aug. 2, aimed at saving $3.8 million.

Had the company been working during the day, firefighters could have been able to pick up the engine and ambulance and been in place to respond to the fire in the evening. But that still would have left a gap in coverage during the afternoon.

It’s always better to have a gap in coverage in the afternoon than at night beginning around dinnertime, when everyone starts the evening meal. (Cooking)

The effect of the brownout was to shift the time that the company was out of action, though union officials – including the national president – still blamed the brownout for the fire death.

“The members of Philadelphia Local 22 are willing to risk their lives to protect life and property in their community, but this plan compromises their ability to perform safe and effective fire and rescue services,” union general president Harold A. Schaitberger wrote Monday in a letter to Mayor Nutter.

Schaitberger wrote that the 12-year-old “might still be alive if your city had not shut down the closest fire company that day.”

That is undeniably true but we will never know now.

Ayers and Everett Gillison, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety, said Monday that the city’s system had worked as it should, and that the department responded to the fire with an engine and two ladder companies within five minutes, in accordance with national standards. Gillison called the union’s use of the boy’s death to highlight their argument “abhorrent.”

Gillison said the boy apparently was frightened and would not come out. “That’s what caused the young man to lose his life. It had nothing to do with the way we fought the fire,” Gillison said.

What is abhorrent is Everett Gillison and what he represents. He is a career public defender and is utterly unqualified to have any official input on issues involving public safety. Furthermore he is in a position that was created by the Mayor, at a six figure salary to oversee the police and fire commissioners. Why? They are the experts and should be his advisors on these matters, not a political crony.

Here he blames an Autistic boy for his own demise. As if the kid knew any better. That’s why firefighters are here, to help those who can’t help themselves, to rescue those at greatest risk. There was a fire later that same night in South Philly where a 90-year-old woman was rescued by firefighters. Was that just dumb luck Mr. Gillison? He should resign.

Union leaders said the system now lacks the backup necessary to cover for companies unavailable for any number of reasons, after closing seven companies permanently last year and three at any one time under the rolling system.

“Unfortunately, this death in West Philadelphia is just the beginning, because there’s no redundancy left in the fire grid anymore, no resources to take up the slack,” Local 22 president Bill Gault said in an e-mail.

That is true. There is no longer any redundancy in the system. My company had to cover up in Center City from Kensington during both fires that night. That leaves my engine company without the help they would have needed immediately in the case of a fire or other incident.

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12 Responses to PHILADELPHIA’S FIRE DEPARTMENT BROWNOUTS: THE TALE OF THE TAPE

  1. Brian Booth says:

    Capt,

    I made both jobs that night and it’s a testament to the firefighters skill and aggressiveness that we didn’t lose the whole damn block. What isn’t being mentioned is that if the fire in South Philly came in a few hours later, that company (Engine 24) would have been browned out and not able to respond. We are truly playing Russian Roulette with public safety. I hope the family of the deceased sues the city, the mayor, the deputy mayor for public safety, and the fire commissioner! This is wrong, dead wrong, and they need to be held accountable!!!

  2. Andrew says:

    Ayers will say just about anything to keep his job, my god. He shouldn’t be allowed to wear the insignia of the PFD. What a disgrace to such a stand-up fire department.

    I feel terrible for the PFD members (especially, the crews who responded that day) who are now forced to compromise the safety of the residents they protect. In an age where safety is so paramount in any profession (more than it ever has been), I never thought I’d see the day when politicians would cut services that provide life saving capabilites for people.

    The general public needs to be more educated on fire science, or simply, to watch videos like this, and still believe a mayor that says increased response times will not make a difference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asoYh5A2P38

  3. gms says:

    Thanks for writing this blog. I just came upon it trying to find something on a woman who was decapitated riding on the back of motorcycle this weekend. I overheard wo cops laughing about it on the El yesterday, which was quite repulsive actually. Anyway, this blog is interesting and I’m glad you say what you think.

    Thanks!!

  4. Mrs. Crankipants says:

    So what he’s saying is that if you’re a disabled child in this city, it’s a crap shoot? Unbelievable. Good post Captain.

  5. Old NFO says:

    Good post CA, and it is only going to get worse… This report points out that the city WILL throw the PFD under the bus in a heartbeat…

  6. Wagonsx says:

    Great post CA. Usually City Hall can baffle many of the (uninformed) citizens with it’s BS. But I don’t think so on this issue. All of a sudden the Fire Dept. is more important than libraries in the media. Sadly, it may have taken the death of the young boy to bring the media to question Nutter. But the silent majority will always be on your side.

  7. Bob G. says:

    Cap:
    Brian’s got it down pat.
    Only in THIS case of RUSSIAN ROULETTE, they’ve handed the PFD an AUTOMATIC with a full mag, instead of a wheelgun with 1 somewhere in the cylinder.
    Not good at all.

    Please stay safe out there, people.

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