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Study Rips Management, Operations of Philadelphia Fire Department

By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- A top-to-bottom assessment of the Philadelphia Fire Department says the department is wracked by low morale and racial strife.  And response times are lower than national standards -- particularly responses to medical emergencies.

The nearly 300-page study was conducted by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA), the state agency that oversees the city's finances. Its goal was  to create an objective assessment of long-running disputes between the fire department's leadership and the firefighters' union, Local 22.

Among the conclusions is that response times to fires are slightly below the national standard, and response times to medical emergencies fall far short:  the standard of five minutes for first arrivals to a medical emergency is met in Philadelphia only about 45 percent of the time.

The study also finds a "poor" relationship between management and labor, and low morale among the rank and file, particularly among paramedics who, according to the report, "do not feel valued or supported by the Department."

And the fire department as whole, the study says, is wracked by racial strife, but there is no one responsible for addressing such issues.

Read the PICA Entire Report on the Philadelphia Fire Department (.pdf format)

Moreover, the study finds that morale issues are exacerbated by a culture within the department that is resistant to change, and an organizational structure that "tends to reinforce the status quo."

The study goes on to find that these labor-management tensions are exacerbated by tight budgets. Yet the document notes that there is currently no one in the department charged with obtaining grants or other outside sources of revenue.

Among the many recommendations in the report is an entirely new management structure that, among other things, includes a substantial increase in the number of EMS supervisory and management positions.

The PICA report includes several potentially controversial recommendations.   One is that paramedics be trained to assist in fire suppression, and that paramedics work the same schedules as firefighters.

Also, the study suggests that fire department revenues could be boosted by starting to charge for a whole host of situations, including auto accidents and hazardous material spills.

The authors of the study, the consultants Berkshire Advisors, say implementation of these far-reaching recommendations would bring a number of benefits, particularly efficiency and cost savings.  This, in turn, would allow the department to phase out its controversial practice of "brownouts" -- temporary closures of fire stations to reduce overtime (see related stories).

The mayor's Chief of Staff, Everett Gillison, said the Nutter Administration will spend the next several weeks reviewing the report, which he called "comprehensive."  He said all of the study's sweeping recommendations will be considered.  Regarding the issues of poor morale and racism within the Department, Gillison insisted that firefighters are professionals who work together well on the fire ground and in EMS situations.  "We don't put our head in the sand about (these) things," said Gillison, "but we're going to address them professionally."

(Mayor Nutter's Chief of Staff Everett Gillison left, and Fire Commisioner Lloyd Ayers responding to PICA report. Credit: Mike Dunn)

Regarding EMS response times, Gillison stressed that the national standards are guidelines only, and that the Department's times are only slightly below them on medical calls.  "And it has nothing to do whether people are safe," he said.

The head of Local 22, Bill Gault, said he felt vindicated by the report, in that many of the problems laid are ones the union has been citing for some time, such as low morale.  But he has doubts about some of the recommendations in the report, which he described as "crazy stuff."  Gault hopes to meet with city officials to see how, and to what to extent, these ideas will be implemented.


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