Phila. firefighters heckle chief at Council hearing

Philadelphia firefighters , members of Local 22, hold up signs in City Council chambers while Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers discusses his plan to transfer senior fire personnel. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia firefighters , members of Local 22, hold up signs in City Council chambers while Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers discusses his plan to transfer senior fire personnel. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 29, 2012

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers faced an unusual situation Tuesday while defending a controversial policy in front of a City Council committee.

The gallery behind him was packed with agitated firefighters - his troops to command - but they were decidedly not on his side. The men alternately heckled Ayers, guffawed at his answers, and drowned out his attempts to respond to questions.

The firefighters and skeptical Council members expressed disbelief that Ayers' plan to transfer nearly 300 of the most experienced firefighters was in the department's best interests.

Instead, they saw the transfers as another punch in their long-running contract battle with the Nutter administration.

Ayers' explanations to the contrary were not greeted cordially.

"Please, please," Councilman James F. Kenney said at one point, trying to quiet the crowd. "We have to get through this."

Such is the state of relations between the administration and its rank-and-file firefighters, who have been working without a contract and a raise since 2009.

Leaders of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters said they have no communication with the mayor's office, and events like Tuesday's hearing - called by sympathetic Council members - was their only avenue for airing concerns.

"They will not speak to us, they will not talk to us," Local 22 President Bill Gault said. "They give this union no respect."

The tension between the sides is so bad that a significant portion of a two-year, $219,000 management report was devoted to figuring out how to patch up this unhappy marriage.

The report, released this year, noted opportunities available from a "generational turnover" in 2013, when every deputy chief and half the battalion chiefs are slated to retire.

Ironically, the changing face of the department is at the heart of Ayers' transfer policy - in the next year, 150 firefighters and officers are expected to retire and 320 fresh recruits should join the ranks.

Those new firefighters must be able to work and learn in the busiest locations of the city, Ayers said. Eventually, he said, the department would move to a system of transferring firefighters every five years.

The policy would open up new opportunities for all firefighters to learn new parts of the city, train for different scenarios, and advance up the ranks, he said.

Ayers said he has supporters in the rank and file.

"They are the silent majority not standing before you," he said. "Like those here today who are resistant to change, they have a stake in how the department is operated."

Union members and their Council supporters see the transfers as needlessly removing expertise, breaking up effective teams of firefighters, and threatening to end the "family" atmosphere of the firehouse culture.

In other words, that the transfers are dangerous - and have no precedent.

Council members repeatedly pressed Ayers to cite studies or name another city that has instituted a similar policy.

"No other fire department in the country thinks this is a best practice," Kenney said.

Ayers said the transfers are a response to the unique circumstances facing the department.

The hearing was purely informational, as it's unclear if Council can take any action to prevent the transfers. But Kenney told the union members to "hang in there. We'll do our best."

"The fact that we're even sitting here is disgraceful," he said. "This is certainly not how you treat someone who's willing to die for you."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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