Fire Department appoints new commissioner

Derrick Sawyer

The Philadelphia Fire Department gained a new commissioner on June 14, one day following the retirement of the often-controversial Lloyd Ayers, who served 40 years as a firefighter, including the last decade as commissioner. Mayor Michael Nutter named Derrick Sawyer as Ayers’ successor last month.

“Derrick Sawyer is a 29-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department, a man who has served in multiple positions over the years and has carved out an expertise in community risk reduction, prevention and fire safety measures,” Nutter said. “Derrick Sawyer is the right person at the right time for this critically important position, and I’m honored to make this appointment.”

Sawyer most recently served as deputy commissioner in the department. He graduated from Community College of Philadelphia with an associate’s degree in fire science and from Holy Family University with a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. He is pursuing a master’s in homeland security at St. Joseph’s University.

“I am humbled and honored to be appointed as the next fire commissioner of this great city,” Sawyer said. “I am excited and looking forward to continuing my service to this great city’s fine citizens.”

During a June 5 news conference, Nutter praised Ayers’ years of service to the citizens of Philadelphia, calling him a pre-eminent leader in the fire department.

“Lloyd Ayers has given his entire working life to both his nation and his hometown. After graduating from Dobbins High School and serving four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1974. As commissioner, Lloyd Ayers has set an example of the sensitive, respectful leadership to which the department and the public is entitled,” Nutter said.

Rank-and-file members of the department might disagree with those assessments. As the department’s representative in Nutter’s administration, Ayers has been a lightning rod for labor-management disputes in recent years on numerous fronts.

Firefighters and paramedics were forced to work without a contract for more than four years during Ayers’ tenure, as Nutter refused to honor a series of arbitration awards favorable to the firefighters’ union, Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Nutter ended the unprecedented impasse last September when city attorneys dropped court challenges to the latest arbitration award. Local 22 members were paid wages and benefits retroactively. The sides are now locked in new arbitration for their next contract.

Ayers also bore much of the criticism for his department’s “brown out” cost-cutting policy, in which selected fire companies are shut down on rotating bases. Local 22 and community leaders say that the policy compromises fire department coverage and the safety of firefighters and the public. The policy remains in place, although the administration has said it is re-evaluating the policy and may seek to terminate it.

Ayers’ disciplinary practices have also drawn the ire of Local 22 members. In 2011, for example, the commissioner reprimanded Firefighter Jack Slivinski for posing without a shirt for a calendar photo shoot to benefit a charity. The firefighter later committed suicide.

The departing commissioner also drew criticism for implementing mandatory personnel rotations that force firefighters and paramedics to change assignments every few years, rather than remaining in preferred assignments.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit involving yet another dispute between the Fire Department and Local 22. The union, as plaintiff, claims that Ayers improperly demoted nine lieutenants and five captains just months after promoting them. Initially, the union claims, Ayers overlooked the supervisors for promotions although the department had vacancies in those positions, funding for those positions and enough qualified candidates to fill those positions. The department later promoted the 14 supervisors upon a judge’s order to do so. When another court overruled the verdict, the department withdrew the promotions. The union maintains that the department did not have authority or justification to revoke the promotions.

Joe Schulle, president of Local 22, declined to comment on the Ayers controversies.

“We’re looking forward to working with Commissioner Sawyer and hopefully turning a page on a new department,” Schulle said.

In addition to appointing Sawyer as commissioner, Nutter named a new leadership team in the department, including Deputy Commissioner for Operations Jesse Wilson, Deputy Commissioner for Technical Services Henry Costo, Deputy Commissioner for Administration Diane Schweitzer, Deputy Commissioner for EMS David Gallagher, Executive Chief for Performance and Strategic Planning Yolanda Stallings and Executive Chief Peter Crespo. Schweitzer is the first woman to hold her position, and Crespo the first Hispanic to hold his position.

Nutter called the group “one of the most diverse and talented teams that the department has ever seen.” ••