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Firefighters sue Phila., saying cuts jeopardize lives

Philadelphia firefighters sued the city twice yesterday, seeking to halt the elimination of five engine and two ladder companies on the grounds that the cuts, slated for Jan. 5, jeopardize lives.

Philadelphia firefighters sued the city twice yesterday, seeking to halt the elimination of five engine and two ladder companies on the grounds that the cuts, slated for Jan. 5, jeopardize lives.

In separate actions filed simultaneously in the Court of Common Pleas and State Supreme Court, Local 22 of the International Association of Firefighters sought to stop what the union characterized as a dangerous budget-trimming plan that reduces the fire service to "precariously unsafe" levels.

"Lives are at stake," said union president Brian McBride. "Unless we do something to slow this thing down, I am convinced that people will die."

The tough talk and one-two punch of litigation are the latest salvos in the union's escalating campaign to prevent the reassignment of 150 firefighters, and the decommissioning of some equipment, as part of Mayor Nutter's plan to close the projected billion-dollar hole in the city's five-year budgetary plan.

Last month, in a televised message that included plans to shutter libraries and pools, Nutter said the fire department cuts will save an estimated $10.5 million a year.

Judge Gary DeVito heard three hours of oral arguments and witness testimony in the Common Pleas Court filing yesterday before adjourning and ordering the parties back to Room 232 in City Hall today at 1:30 p.m.

The State Supreme Court was mum on the matter yesterday.

Under the administration's proposed restructuring, the fire department will shrink from 61 engine companies and 29 ladder companies to 56 engines and 27 ladders. Engine companies pour water on fires. Ladder companies provide equipment for rescues.

Firefighters contend the cuts add to the inherent dangers of their jobs and leave the public inadequately protected.

While Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers says the department will use adjacent companies to absorb the workload of closed companies, the union is skeptical that can be achieved without lengthening emergency response times.

Through a series of outdoor rallies, including a march that drew 1,500 protesters to the apron of City Hall on Monday, the union has marshaled public support.

The lawsuits are another avenue of attack.

In the Common Pleas Court filing, the union asked for an injunction to stall the cuts until an arbitrator can consider a Dec. 4 grievance filed by the union. That grievance claims that in implementing the cuts, the city violated its contract with the union by "jeopardizing the safety and health of firefighters in a manner that is likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

While arbitrators have ruled that running the department and establishing staffing levels are legitimate management prerogatives, the contract prohibits cuts that impact adversely on firefighter health and safety.

Health and safety are central to the union's pleadings in the state Supreme Court case as well. In that case the union wants the judges to halt the fire cuts until they can render a decision in another suit involving the city and the firefighters union.

The underlying suit is on appeal from Commonwealth Court, where in 2007 the city won a ruling that vacated language in the contract that requires an independent, third-party impact study before fire companies can be eliminated. It further states that staffing reductions need to be negotiated with the union. The issue arose in the context of a previous round of fire department cuts under Mayor Street that in the end were unnecessary because the economy improved.

This time, the fire department used an internal study to rationalize the cuts. The union contends that's not good enough. Further, it contends the city should wait for the Supreme Court to rule in the appeal from the Commonwealth Court before implementing the cuts.

The Supreme Court granted a petition to hear the appeal last fall. The union filed its brief in the matter last month. The city's brief is due the first week in January. Oral arguments would follow.

"By ramming through the closures now," said the union's McBride, "the city is trying to do an end-run around the Supreme Court."

The city's position is that "binding precedent" permits the city to close fire companies "without bargaining over the decision to do so," City Solicitor Shelley Smith advised Nutter in a November memo.

Yesterday, in a statement, Smith said, "I think the firefighters should acknowledge that they have already lost this issue. The current state of the law is that the city has the right to close the fire companies."

McBride disagreed. "We're all for fiscal responsibility," he said. "But when lives are at stake you just can't rush into things."