Union president demands inspections on all city fire department vehicles

In the aftermath of an ambulance fire that caused significant damage to an Old City firehouse, the president of the Philadelphia firefighters and paramedics union is calling for safety inspections to all city fire department vehicles.

On Sept. 27, Medic Unit 44B, a fire department-operated ambulance based at Fourth and Arch streets, caught fire due to a mechanical defect, according to Joe Schulle, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters and Paramedics Local 22. The flames destroyed the vehicle and forced the closing of the fire station, which also houses Engine 8 and Ladder 2. No injuries were reported. The flames were declared under control within minutes.

In a printed statement, Schulle said the Medic 44B problem was the latest in a series of mechanical failures involving Philadelphia Fire Department vehicles.

“Over the last few years, the mechanical condition of the majority of vehicles in the fire department fleet, both fire apparatuses and medic units, has reached a critical point,” Schulle said. “Some units are using apparatuses that are more than 20 years old. Many of the units are visibly leaking oil, have significant air leaks or have serious suspension and brake problems.

“Last week’s shocking and destructive incident could have been far worse had the medic unit been responding to an emergency or if a patient had been in the medic unit. In either of those cases, we may have incurred a loss of life.”

Schulle further stated, “This was merely the most recent of several incidents that demand an immediate safety inspection of the entire fire department fleet. It is our position that, due to the current disrepair of many of the vehicles in the department’s fleet, there is a significant risk not only to our members, but also to the citizens of Philadelphia.”

In 2009, according to the union, Engine 56 caught fire due to a mechanical problem, causing significant damage to the truck. In November 2012, Ladder 34 and Ladder 31 collided due to brake failure.

The Mayor Nutter administration reportedly dismissed the full-scale inspection demand as “bizarre,” “political” and “opportunistic” on the part of the union leader. Philly.com quoted an administration official that “front-line” fire department units are “looked at” four to five times annually, and that fire apparatuses have an average age of nine years.

The administration and Local 22 continue to battle on multiple contractual and legal fronts. Last month, the city ended its lengthy legal fight with the union over a contract arbitration covering the period from July 2009 through June 2013. Now, the city and union are in the midst of arbitration for a new contract.

Meanwhile, the union has taken the city to court over the recent demotions of 14 fire department supervisors who were promoted pursuant to a court order last May. The union has also been seeking to reform hiring practices, promotional practices, work schedules and disciplinary practices employed by the administration. ••