Fire Dept. 'culture' ripped in report

Posted: January 19, 2012

AN IN-DEPTH review of the city's Fire Department shows it's beset by racial tension, weak management systems, low morale and limited resources - all affecting service quality.

In October 2010, the city asked the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a state-appointed fiscal watchdog, to fund the $219,000 independent study by Berkshire Advisors Inc. A steering committee of city officials, union leaders and others also weighed in.

The 289-page report released yesterday outlines dozens of recommendations, including revamping the organizational structure of the department, charging for some services and privatizing others, all of which could lead to $11 million in savings.

The study notes problems in the relationship between management and labor, which is described as "poor." It says that "issues of racial and gender equity loom constantly in the background."

The report says that no one in the structure can address the racial issues.

City officials said yesterday that they're open to suggestions to help move the city forward.

"Our record is actually an outstanding record, not only for a city of our size but for an aging population that is very dense," said Everett Gillison, the mayor's chief of staff. "Can we get better? Yes . . . We will take this study and see if there's things that we can do better."

But the report notes that Fire Department cultures are "extremely strong and resistant to change."

While saying that the department does a "reasonably good job of serving" the city, the report says that the department's response to fire emergencies falls slightly below the national standard but that its response to medical incidents falls far below a national standard of five minutes - which is achieved only 45 percent of the time in Philly.

The report describes paramedics' morale as "extremely low" and says they do not feel valued and supported by the department. Also, the report cites an attitude in the department that emergency medical calls are less important than fire calls.

Authors of the report suggest increasing the number of paramedics and cross-training them to serve as firefighters, which would help lower costs by decreasing the number of crews that need to be deployed and would allow the city to discontinue rolling brownouts.

A significant reduction in operations staffing is possible, the report says, adding that an increase in emergency medical resources would allow the department to meet response needs.

The firefighters union has blasted the city for closing seven stations in 2009 and for the brownouts - in which about three fire stations are temporarily closed once a week on a rotational basis to cut down on overtime costs.

Bill Gault, head of Fire Fighters Local 22, commended the study but criticized a suggestion to charge for auto accidents, false alarms and emergency and non-emergency medical responses.

"You can't bill a person because they have a bellyache," he said.

The report also recommends increasing the number of management positions and prioritizing emergency medical calls.

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