Describing the Nutter administration's proposed fire department cutbacks as a threat to the safety of citizens and firefighters, about 1,500 firefighters and their supporters yesterday marched on City Hall.
Chanting "cutbacks kill," Philadelphia firefighters, along with their counterparts from departments across the state and members of local trade unions, began their trek at Fire Department headquarters at Fifth and Callowhill Streets. Then they marched south on Fourth Street to Market Street, and west on Market to City Hall.
Brian McBride, president of the Philadelphia Fire Fighters' Union, spoke to the gathering at the northeast entrance to City Hall in front of a set of 11 plaques embedded in the ground that honor fallen firefighters.
"I don't want to buy any more plaques. We don't want to bury any more firefighters," McBride told the crowd, most of them wearing navy-blue department T-shirts. "What kind of city would risk the lives of its citizens and firefighters to save a few dollars?"
Under the city's plan, five of the city's 61 engine companies and two of 29 ladder companies would be deactivated.
None of the stations housing the companies would be shut and no firefighters would be laid off under the proposal. Up to 148 firefighters would be reassigned.
Officials have said the realignment would save the city $10.5 million a year because the reassigned firefighters from the targeted companies would be deployed to fill jobs now filled through overtime.
Mayor Nutter was in Harrisburg yesterday, but one of his spokesmen, Doug Oliver, said the city was committed to protecting firefighters and citizens.
Even with the reduction of fire companies, the department's response times would meet national guidelines, Oliver said.
Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he represented 294,000 firefighters in the United States and Canada who oppose cuts such as those planned in Philadelphia.
"It's sad that I have to come to a great city and stand in the shadow of City Hall, where they are willing to honor the great sacrifice that our members make on behalf of the the citizens of Philadelphia, while at the same time they have schemes and plans that are going to cut companies and are going to add to these plaques," Schaitberger said.
Schaitberger said he remembered well coming to Philadelphia during the Street administration to protest plans to cut eight fire companies.
"Nutter was a councilman who stood with us, who fought those cuts with us. And now he's the mayor and wants to cut seven companies. I say, hell, no," Schaitberger said.
McBride assailed a study by the Fire Department that supported the proposed cuts, saying it was not professionally done and lacked "critical information." When that study was released in November, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers declared that "budget restraints will not compromise the department's level of service, response or dedication."
Schaitberger said that, in tough economic times, people use portable heaters, kerosene heaters and kitchen stoves to heat their homes.
"We are going to see the poor and needy trying to heat their homes," Schaitberger said. "In those neighborhoods where they are going to be cutting companies, they are going to be playing Russian roulette."