City Council Debates Getting Rid Of Brownouts
In lieu of a West Philly fire in August that claimed the life of a 12-year old autistic child, Frank Marasco, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee held a public hearing yesterday to discuss the issue of the Nutter administration’s controversial “brownout” policy. The brownouts were another attempt to pinch pennies by closing fire stations on a rotating basis throughout the city. The policy would save a mere $3.8 million in the city budget.
The hearing began with a video that depicted the aftermath of a fire on August 7th on 55th and Sansom Sts. Neighbors were shown admonishing the mayor for the brownouts, which left the closest fire station, Engine 57 on 55th and Chestnut, out of service when the fire began. A firefighter in the video called the brownouts, “a Russian roulette plan of shuffling firehouses.” After the video was shown, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose constituency includes the area of the fire, stated her firm opposition to the brown out policy.
“I am totally opposed to the brownout policy and totally convinced that there are better ways to save money,” she said. “No money can devalue the life of a child.”
One of those neighbors, Block Captain Marvin Wilson, testified at the hearing and took Mayor Nutter to task for removing vital city services.
“Our community does not understand why the mayor has chosen to tax the entities that we need the most,” said Wilson. “He has not yet come forward since this young man’s death.”
The details of that night are still very murky. What is known is that Engine 57 had just come off of a brownout nearly an hour before the fire had begun, but the entire crew had to pick up a piece of equipment across the city in Hunting Park. Neighborhood residents testified that it took the next closest fire engine, Engine 68 on 52nd and Willow, 8-10 minutes to get to the scene of the fire, and by that time the fire had already claimed five houses on the block. Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Everett Gillison and Fire Commisioner Lloyd Ayers said that according to their records, the fire engine arrived at the block in an 3 minutes and 13 seconds, which drew incredulous reactions from the neighbors in the audience.
Councilman Frank Rizzo had a tense back-and-forth with Gillison and Ayers over the response time. When Ayers claimed that a battalion chief had radioed that a fire engine was right behind him, Rizzo asked, “What does ‘right behind me’ mean? I could be on the expressway, on 76, and there could be a guy in Valley Forge right behind me!” Gillison made the point that there is no way of knowing how much damage the fire had already done before the engine arrived.
Rizzo also questioned why the fire department had an entire fire crew go pick up a piece of equipment and recalled the days when Fleet Management would drop off equipment to firehouses. Gillison and Ayers explained that that was one of the services that is no longer within the city’s budget.
Gillison did his best to defend the administrations brownout decision, claiming that it was the lesser of two evils rather than laying off active fire or police officers. He also indicated that the union was angry at not being able to make overtime because the firefighters who are on brownout are used to staff other firehouses.
“I gave my word to people that I would not lay off an active fire officer, police officer or prison guard. I have kept my word,” said Gillison. “This policy has gone on for 30 years and the only difference is that we have removed the opportunity for overtime.”
Earlier in the hearing, Local 22, IAFF, President Bill Gault made a passionate plea to council for an end to the brownouts. Raising his voice, he said, “Right now we’re talking a miniscule amount of money in a $4 billion budget. We know the mayor has a vendetta against us, but this has to stop. That little kid didn’t have to die and five houses didn’t have to burn.”
His plea did not fall on deaf ears as the Council expressed their concern and hoped to revisit the brownout issue at the next round of budget hearings.