Flags at full staff at Pa. firehouse cause controversy

By George Anastasia
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Flags flew at half-staff at Police Headquarters and police stations throughout Philadelphia yesterday in memory of slain Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski.

But at the Fire Administration Building, 240 Spring Garden St., and some fire stations around the city, the American flag flew at full staff.

"It's a disgrace," said one fireman who asked not to be identified. "It doesn't make sense."

Call it a battle of tradition versus protocol.

Or a tempest in a teapot.

In a move that angered rank-and-file police and firefighters, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers issued what he said was a standard directive pointing out that American flags at all fire stations should be flown at full staff despite the 30-day period of mourning called for by Mayor Nutter.

Technically speaking, Ayers is following the accepted protocols involving the display of the American flag. But the move was viewed by some members of a law enforcement community still coming to grips with the killing as callous and unnecessary.

"I think the flag should be flown at half-staff," said John McGrody, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. "Historically and traditionally, it's been done."

McGrody said yesterday that the FOP had received phone calls all day from firefighters upset over the fire commissioner's directive.

Ayers, in a telephone interview last night, said the directive was the same one he has issued each time a policeman or firefighter dies in the line of duty.

The directive is correct. Flying the American flag at half-staff is something that only the president or governor can order and only under specific circumstances.

But Ayers said neither he nor anyone else in his administration pushes for strict enforcement, and he questioned why this time the directive had created a buzz and attracted media attention.

"Nobody's going around to see if this is at half or full," he said. "We don't care about that stuff. I just issue the directive to remind everyone of their technical responsibility."

More important, Ayers said, was for everyone in the city and within law enforcement to show their support and respect for Officer Liczbinski and his family.

"We want to let this family know that the Fire Department stands tall beside the Police Department, ready to do whatever we can to help them," Ayers said.

Doug Oliver, a spokesman for Nutter, said he hoped the flap over the flag directive would not become a distraction for the more important and serious matters at hand.

The mayor has ordered all City of Philadelphia flags flown at half-staff for 30 days as a sign of mourning and a show of respect for the fallen officer and his family, Oliver said.

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