Commonwealth Court overturns Pa. Labor Relations Board decision; rules paramedics are firefighters under state law

By Jon Campisi | Jan 23, 2012

A state appellate court ruled Jan. 18 that paramedics with the Philadelphia Fire Department are indeed considered firefighters under state law, and can be members of the local union representing firefighters.

The decision by the Commonwealth Court panel overturns a September 2010 ruling by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board that determined otherwise.

“Fire Service Paramedics have played an integral role in fire fighting since the beginning of organized service. When you look at it in the context of what the Philadelphia Fire Department does, they’ve always been in the business of responding to health needs,” attorney Ralph J. Teti, of the Philadelphia labor law firm Willig, Williams & Davidson, said in a statement in response to the decision.

Teti represented Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters in their case against the PLRB.

Teti claimed the entire case stemmed from the fact that the City of Philadelphia wanted to exclude the paramedics from Act 111, claiming they were not technically firefighters.

“It wasn’t right,” Teti said in the statement. “And now we’ve given people back the rights to collective bargaining that they never should have lost to begin with.”

The union had argued on appeal that amendments to the fire code and the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter gives the paramedics authority to perform firefighting tasks, and, in turn, collectively bargain.

“The Fire Department employs both firefighters and FSPs [Fire Service Paramedics] to work at emergency scenes with the shared goal of saving lives,” the courts ruling states.

The court referenced another court ruling that spoke about how the definition of firefighting has changed from simply “pulling hose, squirting water or driving a truck.”

“Even if we were to conclude that FSPs are only ‘firefighting’ on the rare instances in which they assist firefighters in fire abatement, we would still conclude that FSPs are engaged in firefighting for purposes of Act 111,” the court’s ruling states.

The judges noted that many emergencies to which firefighters respond do not always involve fighting fires. In fact, they wrote that fire emergencies are “only a minute portion of the Fire Department’s entire call volume.”

“Yet no one would seriously contend that firefighters are not covered by Act 111 because the vast majority of their work does not involve fighting fires,” the ruling states. “We see no reason FSPs should be treated differently.”

The majority opinion was written by Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia A. McCullough.

Judge Dan Pellegrini issued a dissenting opinion in which he said he believes that the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction to decide “who is or is not a firefighter because that is a constitutional question over which the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction.”

The paramedics have been included in the Local 22 bargaining unit for two decades. In the spring of 2009, however, the City of Philadelphia filed a unit clarification petition with PLRB seeking to have the medics removed from the union based on the belief that they were not firefighters under Act 111, according to a news release from the plaintiff’s attorneys.

The PLRB eventually agreed with the city.

Union representatives appear pleased with the court’s ruling.

“This is a great decision that restores our brother and sister life-savers to the full union where they have been for years,” Local 22 President Bill Gault said in a statement. “We work out of the same fire stations. We have the same life saving goals. We are and always have been a team in every sense of the word.”

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