Dozens protest rolling brownouts in Philadelphia

While city officials say temporary closures have no discernible impact, some firefighters' union heatedly disagree

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — More than 100 residents, firefighters, union leaders, and community activists gathered at Fourth and Snyder Streets in South Philadelphia on Friday to protest the city's decision to temporarily close fire stations.

"We need our fire station. And we are willing to stand up and fight for it," said Mark Squilla, president of the Whitman Council, the local civic organization.

The community organization initiated the rally outside Engine 53, which was closed for the Friday night shift under the city's plan of "rolling brownouts."

Mayor Nutter launched the program on Aug. 2 in a budget-cutting measure. It's a rotational schedule in which three companies are closed during the day and three at night. Of the fire department's 56 companies, 23 are involved in the rotation. The city hopes the program will save $3.8 million in overtime costs.

While city officials and Fire Commissioner Lloyd M. Ayers say the temporary closures have no discernible impact on public safety, some residents and the firefighters' union heatedly disagree and voice anger.

"This is gambling. The size of the city has not changed. It's all about response time," said Jerry Kots, 56, a firefighter who works at Engine 53. "It's not about overtime. This we have anyway, since the city has not hired new firemen for two years."

During the closure Friday night, the next closest available station was Engine 49 at 13th and Shunk Streets, 10 blocks away.

Some residents share the fears of the firefighters.

"The whole neighborhood relies on this fire station," said Gray Weikel, 41, a mechanic who lives on Snyder Street. "There are better ways to cut deficits."

Residents at Friday's rally waved posters that read "Nutter Go Home" and shouted, "Save Our Fire Station."

The controversy about fire safety was heightened last week when a fire killed a 12-year-old boy in West Philadelphia. Frank Marasco, who was autistic, died in the fire, which investigators said was sparked by a discarded cigarette.

The nearest fire station, barely 90 seconds' walk from Frank's house, was unavailable that night. Firefighters were on a maintenance run after a 12-hour shutdown.

The firefighters' union members and South Philadelphia civic activists said Friday that protests would continue. "It's not going to be the last rally, that's for sure," Squilla said.

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