A moment barely passed after the bell in the Engine 59 fire house rang, and Duane Hughes darted from the station’s kitchen to the driver’s seat of the fire truck. The fire station, which sits at 2207 W. Hunting Park Ave. and serves Hunting Park, is constantly kept busy.
“North Philly and West Philly is probably more busy than other areas of the city,” Hughes said. “But it’s our job, we’re here to help people no matter where you’re at.”
Bill Gault agreed, saying North Philadelphia neighborhoods, like Hunting Park, often experience more fires than other areas of the city because of the tightly knit row homes that line the streets.
“Every neighborhood has different challenges to firefighting. In the North, it’s mostly row-type dwellings over a hundred years old with little streets that are tough to navigate,” Gault said.
Houses being close together cause fires which often spread quickly, Guault said, making it difficult to be kept under control. He also explained other challenges of firefighting. For instance, firefighters must adapt to different obstacles in each neighborhood. In Hunting Park, he said “Old factory buildings that are abandoned or renovated,” sometimes present a more dangerous challenge because of the factories’ large size.
“That neighborhood like every other in the city is under-protected, as all are in this city. We are not prepared for multiple incidents,” he said. “The fire department is an insurance policy that you hope you never have to use, but you want it there when you need it.”
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers has high expectations for his firefighters. For instance, a year ago, Ayers removed firefighter Jack Slivinski from Rescue 1—the city’s most elite fire unit—and took him out of a national firefighter calendar that aims to promote fitness and fire safety while generating funds for a widows’ charity because Slivinski’s nipple was showing.
“We don’t sell sex, we sell safety…We get letters from children. They look up to us,” Ayers told the Daily News at the time. However, in a YouTube video, Ayers is seen wearing his commissioner uniform and promoting a bookstore in Hunting Park that sells erotic books, saying “We need to make sure we support Black and Nobel. It’s what it’s all about!”
According to its website, Black and Noble—which sits at 1411 W. Erie Ave.—said its message is to “stimulate a greater interest in reading among both the young and old members of the black community.”
Ayers didn’t return calls to comment on his choice of promoting the book while in uniform, but Bill Gault, the president of the Firefighter’s Union Local 22, explained that “the fire commissioner has god-like powers. He answers to the Mayor, and what that says is: Do as I say but not as I do.”
Gault added the fire department could make other improvements – for instance, in firefighter safety. Since last July, there have been six rank-and-file firefighters from the Firefighter’s Union Local 22 who suffered facial or neck burns. After the burns occurred, they were replaced to other departments. Union representatives contend it is a punishment to discourage other firefighters from reporting dangerous injuries.
Still, when asked if firefighters are more reluctant to run into a burning building because they fear a transfer, Gault replied, “No. But what will happen is they won’t report the injuries out of fear of getting transferred. This will cause problems, because we have to know the cause of each injury whatever it is or however it happened so we can make sure there aren’t any reoccurrences or if its an equipment problem we won’t know.”
That’s a particular worry in Hunting Park, where Engine 59 and others in North Philadelphia are used more than areas of the city less prone to fires. And while Gault speculated the city should hire more firefighters to improve fire safety, the fire department hasn’t had a new class of firefighters in more than four years, which is causing a lot of overtime for the current employees.
But with another looming deficit for Philadelphia’s school district, which is currently choking city’s budget, hiring more fireman doesn’t appear likely any time soon.
Part of the reason for the lack of hiring new firefighters is the change in pensions over the past few years. The firefighters union currently has two pension plans in Philadelphia, but they have recently been changed so that new hires receive less money and benefits than current employees.
“[The] problem with that is unlike other jobs, our children follow us in this career. We have two groups doing the same job for less benefits, and it’s not fair,” Gault said, adding that it is not the money that keeps firefighters doing their jobs.
While new hires don’t appear promising, the fire department will soon see some internal improvements. Mayor Michael Nutter released the city’s 2013 budget earlier this month, and in it, he earmarked $6.6 million to renovate 11 fire stations, as well as six police buildings.
That’s good news to Gault, although he still is calling for more money in the pockets of those who put their lives on the line.
“We love our career. We love what we do,” Gault said. “We didn’t do this to become rich. We do it because it’s a calling, and all we want is to treated fairly–no more, no less.”