DN Editorial: BLOWING SMOKE?
Commissioner Ayer's plan may not be bad, but there's no way to tell
ON THE website home page of the city firefighters union, there's a countdown clock marking the seconds to a "new day" for the department - the day in 2014 that Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers retires.
With that kind of enmity, it's no surprise that the firefighters went ballistic over Ayers' plan to begin rotating hundreds of firefighters out of their home stations over the next two years. Firefighters packed a recent City Council hearing, boisterously heckling and mocking Ayers as he testified.
What is a surprise is that Ayers would proceed with the plan based solely on speculation that it will benefit the city and the department. There's no precedent for such systematic rotations here or elsewhere in the country. Ayers has offered no studies, reports or hearings about it, no evidence-based rationale or best-practices foundation for the policy.
Ayers says that the rotations are needed because of the anticipated retirement of scores of firefighters and officers next year, and the hiring of hundreds of new recruits. With a reduction in fires that the city has experienced, Ayers said, firefighters have to be exposed to busier stations in different parts of the city to stay prepared.
Firefighters say that the plan would impair the crucial teamwork developed through years of working together by separating crews who've learned to trust, anticipate and depend on each other in life-or-death situations. Permanent assignments also ensure that crew members learn the quirky streetscapes and critical features of buildings in their districts so they can respond rapidly.
With no supporting documentation for the transfers, it's no surprise that firefighters and their sympathizers, including a faction of City Council, believe that this is a punitive tactic pursued by the Nutter administration as part of the hostile standoff over contract negotiations. Firefighters have been without a contract since 2009, and the city continues to appeal the arbitration awards and court confirmation that the union has won.
We're not about to wade into this battle to either support or oppose the rotations. But we can't help thinking that this is a rerun of another controversial plan that the Nutter administration attempted to unroll a few years ago, with the announcement of the closure of libraries. It was a plan driven by economies, but burned as a highly emotional issue, in part because of the absence of real data to support the moves that the administration was proposing. Those figures never came out, and the mayor backed off the plan.
Not only does the current firefight seem to be a repeat of this, but a detailed efficiency and effectiveness study of the Fire Department done at the behest of Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority earlier this year suggests that the department's management and structure need work. None of the findings of this study has been mentioned by Ayers, either in the context of his deployment strategy or elsewhere.
Interestingly, the study's report calls out the department for its lack of data-driven decision-making: "For the most part, the management culture in the department is reactive and does not proactively use information to address current needs and to anticipate future requirements."
The transfer plan may well benefit the city and the public. Or it could be disastrous. If this conflict is typical, there's probably merit on both sides of the argument. The problem is, we have nothing on which to base a conclusion at this point. Ayers could put out this fire more easily with facts and figures.