Residents slammed the city's policy of "rolling brownouts" at fire stations during a City Council hearing yesterday, accusing the mayor of jeopardizing safety.

"Our citizens cannot afford to lose lives due to a lack of response from fire and police," said Greg Spearman, a Democratic ward leader from West Philadelphia. The hearing was proposed by Councilwoman Janie Blackwell.

In August, the city started closing an average of three fire stations a day on a rolling basis in an effort to save $3.8 million in overtime costs. Critics of the policy have questioned whether it contributed to the death of 12-year-old Frank Marasco in a West Philadelphia fire on Aug. 7.

But Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison defended the policy, saying that the department has always had temporary closures when firefighters are out for training or on leave. Ayers also said fire deaths have declined in recent years, as have the number of fires.

"We will continue to do as well as we can in the Fire Department to help the citizens that need our help," Ayers said.

The fire that killed Marasco occured on 55th Street near Sansom. The closest engine company - Engine 57, at 55th and Chestnut streets - was browned-out earlier in the day. But at the time of the 6:51 p.m. emergency call, the station was open, but unable to respond because firefighters were collecting apparatus in another part of the city.

Instead, Engine 68, at 52nd Street and Willows Avenue, responded first. Just how long it took to get equipment on the ground - and if the brownout was actually to blame - has been a topic of intense debate.

Meanwhile, the city is trying to move ahead with a review of emergency operations. City officials yesterday asked the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority to fund an outside study into fire operations. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison said such a study would likely cost between $300,000 and $450,000, and take six to nine months.

PICA Chairman Jim Eisenhower said the authority was interested in funding such a study, but wanted the administration to talk with Council and the fire union, to make sure all parties were on board.

Bill Gault, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters' Local 22, said he would try to help, but was skeptical. "We'll help in any way we can," he said, "but I don't have any faith in anything the administration is doing."