THE CITY'S firefighters union sued Mayor Nutter yesterday, asking both a local court and the state Supreme Court to halt budget cuts that will eliminate seven fire companies Jan. 5.

Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters told Common Pleas Judge Gary DiVito that the elimination of five fire engines and two ladder trucks will endanger lives.

The union wants an injunction so that a grievance on workplace-safety issues, filed with the city on Dec. 3, can be considered before the scheduled reductions.

DiVito plans to resume the hearing on the injunction this afternoon.

The union also asked the Supreme Court to intervene. That court on Monday agreed to hear, in March, Local 22's appeal of a 2007 Commonwealth Court ruling striking from the union's 2005 contract a procedure on how fire companies are closed.

That procedure called for an independent study of fire company closings and city negotiation with the union before they happen.

City Solicitor Shelley Smith yesterday rejected claims that the budget cuts create a danger.

"I think the firefighters should acknowledge that they've already lost this issue," Smith said.

"The current state of the law is that the city has the right to close fire companies. That's what it has done. And it has done it mindful of the safety of the firefighters and the safety of the citizens."

Local 22 president Brian McBride disagreed, predicting several times in a hearing yesterday that the closings will bring death to the Fire Department.

"Quite frankly, it scares me to death," said McBride, who seemed most concerned about cuts that will leave ladder trucks in stations without fire engines. Ladder trucks are used for rescues and to ventilate buildings of smoke while engines are used to deliver water to fight fires.

No fire stations are closing and no firefighters are being laid off.

The equipment being eliminated is staffed by firefighters on overtime, who will be reassigned. That will save the city $10.4 million per year. The city's five-year financial plan has a deficit that has grown beyond $1 billion.

"To jeopardize the lives and safety of firefighters over a few bucks is unconscionable," McBride testified yesterday.

Steve Agostini, the city's budget director, testified that putting off fire company closings will cost about $5.2 million for six months. If that happens, the city will have to consider closing recreation centers, more library branches or laying off more workers, he added, since the annual budget by law must be balanced.

Nan Lassen, a Local 22 attorney, tried to steer Agostini back to safety, "Let me ask you this: What is a firefighter's life worth?"

That drew objections from the city Law Department and DiVito agreed to strike the question.

Deputy Fire Commissioner John Devlin testified that fire company closings are "not done lightly" because they stir controversy, but the current plan was the best solution for the city's budget.

The equipment being cut will remain in reserve and could be reactivated once finances improve, Devlin said. *