Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers spent the better part of two hours this morning defending a plan to rotate nearly 300 senior firefighters from their current assignments.
He fielded skeptical questions from Council members and often was heckled and drowned out by applause and laughter from a gallery full of firefighters opposed to the moves.
Ayers framed the rotation as necessary for training firefighters in a changing department that fights fewer fires every year and should view prevention as its first priority.
The firefighters' union and its supporters on Council see the transfers as a punitive tactic in the firefighters long-running contract dispute with the city. Council members, led by James F. Kenney, repeatedly asked Ayers to describe the basis for the transfer policy or cite another city where it was considered the "best practice."
Ayers said the policy was developed to meet Philadelphia's specific challenges, including a coming influx of 320 new recruits and the loss of 150 firefighters through retirements in the next year. Ultimately, he said, the department would have a five-year rotation process.
Critics on Council fear the transfers will break up effective firefighting teams, remove firefighting expertise from neighborhoods and threaten the traditional "family" culture that's part of an effective fire house.
In short, they believe the transfers will make the city less safe.
Ayers disputed that, blaming the union for "trying to scare the city of Philadelphia, our residents, into thinking we're less secure." In truth, he said, fires and fire deaths have been declining for years.
Hovering over the entire hearing, held in the Labor and Civil Service Committee, is the ongoing contract fight, which has been the subject of years of legal battles. The firefighters have not had a contract since 2009 and they are frustrated, Kenney said.
"Do you expect people to come to work cheerfully when they're treated so disrespectfully by their employer?" he asked.
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