Philadelphia Deputy Chief’s Statement Against Firefighter Rotation Plan

Last week, members of the Philadelphia (PA) City Council questioned Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers about a controversial plan to rotate 293 senior firefighters to stations throughout the city. The plan is slated to start in January.

Below is the full statement of Deputy Chief James Bonner speaking out against the rotation plans.


City Council Hearing

James H. Bonner

Member of Local 22

Resolution No. 120929

November 27, 2012

Good Morning Chairman Kenney, members of the Committee of Labor and Civil Service and other distinguished members. I am James H. Bonner, a member of the Philadelphia Firefighters’ & Paramedics Union, IAFF, Local 22 and a citizen of the City of Philadelphia. I also hold the rank of Deputy Chief in the Philadelphia Fire Department.

I would like to offer my sincere thoughts.

The craft of urban firefighting and the multitude of other emergencies where firefighters and paramedics respond require a unique collection of education and experience. The firefighter who must immediately react to a variety of emergency situations must merge up-to-date education along with tried and tested techniques that are handed down from those with years of experience. To be an accomplished paramedic you must be fully capable in reacting with effective skills to the automobile crash, the shooting or the heart attack of the beloved family member.

The backbone of the U.S. Military is the specialist. Guidance of these specialists is served well by managers who have a thorough knowledge of the operations of other Divisions making for a well-rounded, enlightened administrator who is aware of the varied solutions available within an organization. In regards to the ground level workforce, the people that produce the service to the public, rotation removes the specialists and turns a workforce into generalists with an overview of the mission, however, less fluency of the specific (as in specialist) abilities, situational awareness, experience or skill to cut the learning curve and solve the latent calamity.

Tell a Sergeant Major in the Army that you are going to rotate the personnel in their division, so they will be well-rounded. You can only imagine the answer you will receive.

VALUE OF SENIOR PEOPLE

When we arrive, we have to be effective immediately. We cannot play with trial and error. Ours is not a meeting where ideas are discussed. We must operate as a well-oiled machine without delay. The paramedic crew arriving at an auto accident with a child bleeding profusely — the engine company agonizing, struggling over maintaining their water line in a hallway with zero visibility and extreme temperatures while the ladder company frantically searches the floor above, or the crew raising a 35 ft ladder through PECO wires on a 20 degree snowy night with a Mother preparing to drop her children from the 3rd floor. Do we want a company who consistently works with the same personnel — a team built on the experiences of the senior members? Paramedics who know each other’s thoughts? Of course we do.

Every year this department is successful with these missions and you seldom hear of them on the local news — because the news only gives time to the tragedies — the times we were not successful. We are rotating the people that make these scenarios come out positively. Their expertise is required with the refinery, high-rises, large residential or industrial complexes, the hospitals, universities, any place where a seasoned veteran will guide the group directly to the boiler room, the HVAC floor, the steam shut off, the sprinkler controls, the alarm panel, elevator controls and locations of remote hydrants. We are sending a convoluted message to hospital fire marshals, university safety staff and building engineers by expecting them to have trained personnel at the front desk with full knowledge of the infrastructure, but we will be sending crews where we change personnel to align with a 3 to 5 year rotation.

It is not about knowing the streets in a given area as Mr. Resnick and Mr. McDonald have mentioned. Their paraphrased statement that, ‘If Firefighters and Paramedics can work overtime around the city, then why cant they rotate, this demonstrates their lack of knowledge of the fire and EMS service. Battalion Chiefs will assign overtime personnel to fill out the staffing with assigned members from that station. The Battalion Chiefs fully realize the benefit of crew integrity. It is imperative to know the intricacies of the residential and industrial complexes that we respond too. Getting there is not the problem — it is when you arrive, you immediately have to make the situation better. The driver, pump operators and tiller personnel must be from that station. Navigating fire apparatus through our streets must be done by people experienced in specific locals or accidents occur. Presently, company officers are held monetarily responsible for apparatus accidents. What is devastating to the company officer is losing the senior person who instructs junior members on how to delicately maneuver and tactically place the apparatus; we will lose the senior person that suggests to the company officer a more effective positioning of the initial attack line based on ample knowledge of the property, streets and alleys. I know. I have exploited these senior people throughout my entire 35 year career.

On the EMS side, providing a consistent service is having regular partners working the same area of the city, they know the complex facilities and connect with hospital staff, police personnel and the fire companies that pick up their frequent overflow work.

Having served as a company officer for 18 of my 35 years, winning over the senior person gave me firsthand knowledge of the personnel and the complex facilities in our local area. May I add a little story – After confining a fire to the base of an elevator shaft in St. Joseph’s Hospital, the senior member used an office phone and called the hospital fire marshal at home at 3AM. My surprised look caused him to respond to me, “He said to call him anytime if we need him. The CEO of the hospital will want him here.” He was right the CEO and the hospital fire marshal arrived within 20 minutes.

MENTORS

In a recent General Memorandum, the Fire Department initiated a sign-up mentoring program. Mentors are the life blood of any organization. The mentors are already in place and have been tutoring our newer personnel for decades. Two mentors who imprinted me with methods and work ethic chose to never advance past the rank of firefighter – and I was their supervisor. They treated their co-workers, supervisors and the public in a very professional manner, they consistently desired to learn and, as our profession demands, pushed themselves physically until there was nothing left. Mentors are in place — why are we rewarding them by moving them?

WHO ELSE ROTATES

With thousands of career fire departments across the country, I have not been able to locate any that rotates Paramedics and Firefighters. I researched through the National Fire Academy’s Library and used contacts with fire service leaders and I have found not a word on Paramedic or Firefighter rotation; and only a few fire departments  rotate their officers — we rotate officers every three years; all the more reason to leave the senior members in place.

CHANGES WITHOUT INPUT

Recently, there have been five major changes within the Philadelphia Fire Department:

  • Medic schedule change — General Memorandum #09-39
  • Medic rotations — General Memorandum #11-16
  • The management change of our EMS system — General Memorandums #12-77 & #12-91
  • Firefighter schedule change — General Memorandum #12-125
  • Firefighter rotation — General Memorandum #12-134

All published with no input from our chief officers.

Some of our chief officers in Philadelphia serve as instructors in other cities or nearby counties to share experiences with their newly promoted officers, or instruct on the management of extra alarm fires, or how to handle the enormous undertaking of a high-rise fire and how we keep our overburden EMS system from fracturing.  Other municipalities have our present and retired chief officers consult on their operations in an effort to make them more efficient and effective. The reason given that the Fire Department does not consult their own chief officers is because they are members of Local 22. Police Commissioner Ramsey encourages input from his Chief Inspectors, Inspectors and Captains who are also members of the FOP, yet he allows them to contribute thoughts, experiences and ideas on a regular basis. I am sure the other city departments consult members of District Councils 47 and 33. With these five major changes to the Fire Department, the chief officers were never consulted.

Change is a must in our belt-tightening economy. I am for change. Change for the better. During the promotional testing process chief officers participated in an oral exam graded by chief officers from other metropolitan fire departments. One portion involved demonstrating your ability to create a change policy. We were required to lay out a plan to gather all pertinent information and canvass the involved and interested parties. We explained how committees or task groups need establishment with a clear agenda. Results created a plan that garnered buy-in from the rank and file and alternate plans if results were poor. All of our chief officers in Philadelphia convinced chiefs from other cities that we could handle an effort in change, but Philadelphia refused to involve us in these changes.

At a recent Staff Meeting conducted by the Fire Department Administration, when the chief officers asked, how do we sell this, in particular for me, a senior member who has accumulated over 5000 sick hours and with over 30 years has trained each new member assigned to the station — this person also rejected a full disability from having a building collapse on him, he exercised himself back to peak physical condition, he lives his life with a significant facial disfigurement — the chief officers were told, “I didn’t ask you to sell it.” Is this how we treat a valued, devoted firefighter? And how we treat educated chief officers who are interested in being a contributing asset of the organization?

What research has been done to justify these five major changes in the Fire Department? Has research involved the United States Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy or the International Association of Fire Chiefs? The old mantra stands, ‘Do we have to reinvent the wheel?’ How have these ideas worked elsewhere?                                            They haven’t.

RETALIATION?

Which lends credence to the accusation that these changes are a result of retaliation – retaliation over the lengthy, expensive court battle involving the contract or the FLSA lawsuit brought by some Paramedics and Firefighters?  These changes started with the city filing to remove the Paramedics from the Union. The relationship between the Mayor’s office and Local 22 is so wounded. So much money spent on legal battles.

BUDGET CUT BACKS — THE COST

For years the Fire Department has been giving back, company closings, brown-outs and the elimination of a host of very important training initiatives. I watch how the city spends elsewhere. ENOUGH ALREADY! The Fire Department is at rock bottom. We’ve had four recent incidents where firefighters were severely injured and killed.

  • 03/02/11 – 24th & Jefferson — A PHA high-rise building with a wind driven fire severely injuring a firefighter who was rescued and hospitalized. Found with no air remaining in his air pack.
  • 04/19/11 – 5th & Poplar streets — Three firefighters severely burned and scarred with one permanently disabled due to trauma injuries after being driven from a window, 3 stories high.
  • 12/23/11 – 19th & Norris — Three Firefighters had to bale from the 3rd floor window to escape smoke and flames that were below them. A total of 10 injured firefighters.
  • 04/09/12 – York Street in Kensington — resulting in the death of Lt. Bob Neary and FF. Dan Sweeney.

No department investigations. Other departments routinely conduct an in-depth safety investigation on incidents resulting in significant injury or death. Lessons learned are developed for all to benefit. Some of our very own chief officers participate in injury investigations in other municipalities.

With all of this cost-cutting now more than ever our Fire Department needs the senior personnel in place. Cut backs in Fire Department spending have eliminated training. An example is driver training (EVOC — Emergency Vehicle Operator Course). We have company officers, some not even qualified to operate the vehicle assigned to them, yet responsible to instruct firefighters and paramedics on how to drive, operate the pump, tiller, position at emergencies, etc; a further example of the value of senior members. Also eliminated has been our highly touted Officer Development Program where newly promoted Captains and Lieutenants are schooled in effective management and safe operations in dangerous situations. I have provided our Officer Development syllabus to other cities to use in their program. Recent communications with those cities result in shock and dismay that Philadelphia would subject the program to elimination due to cut backs. Progressive municipalities have a Command School for newly promoted chief officers, some lasting a month or more. Philadelphia gives you the chief’s uniform and sends you out to command incidents. And certification is reserved only for our new members. Nationally, firefighters are certified department wide. A creative Deputy Chief had 1/8 of our department complete certification in a cost effective approach that was also prevented from moving forward as cut backs arose.  From a risk management perspective we are teetering on a major loss. Once the physical loss occurs the lawsuits generated will provide the financial sting. We expect our chief officers and company officers to arrive to an incident, take command, make decisions that will dictate either the next few minutes or next few hours and keep all safe – given all this responsibility with no formal training. We now find ourselves in the midst of a grand jury and civil lawsuits being prepared that will expose the operational deficiencies due to the city’s conscious decision to eliminate critical training initiatives.

ARE WE SACRAFICING DEDICATION?

How much do you expect the rank and file to take? Now the city enjoys the dedication of people showing up for work on Christmas, Thanksgiving, during hurricanes and when we have three feet of snow on the ground. When will the heavy handed changes and cut backs truly affect morale? When will we start placing companies out of service because people are calling out sick or run out of people to ask for overtime — something I thought I would never see.

I personally have nothing to gain from my comments today other than maybe the disdain of my superiors. I only wish for the citizens of Philadelphia and members of this department to boast of a first rate Fire and EMS service.

I always ask of subordinates who complain to supply solutions. Rotation of new members through active companies would be ideal; the quandary is, due to a lack of hiring, we now have a sudden influx of four classes back to back. This is a problem created by the city administration that has not hired in years and then throws in the face of the union, its all about overtime. With gradual hiring we can blend new people into the department. After the academy, new members can rotate through active companies over the first year. Then with a solid background, they would be given an assignment.

SOME IDEAS – All solutions take work and have unexpected impacts.

  • Leave people in place and demand accountability in treating the public with respect, constant improvement of their skills and total involvement in providing a safe environment for all citizens, workers and visitors in their local area.
  • Create an opening in active companies for a trainee position with trainees rotating through on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. Involve the Deputy Chiefs and Battalion Chiefs in a participatory management style to overcome the problem of over 300 new members.
  • Fire Service people from other cities are always surprised to find out that we do not have a transfer policy, such as, a bid system or a seniority based transfer system. With a transfer policy in place, an individual will have some predictability of when access to a specific station will become available. This could be years down the road, but gives some information as to career assessment.
  • Appropriate some overtime money to back fill companies permitting training in Back to Basics, Basement Fires, Fundamental Engine & Ladder Operations, EMS with Special Operations and Officer Development.

In conclusion,

Please take this as an attempt to assist you in becoming more aware of your Philadelphia Fire Department. These opinions are my own in an effort to bypass the hyperbole that inundates you. The safety of our citizens including our Firefighters and Paramedics is paramount.

Thank you for your attention,

James H. Bonner

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