5-22-2004 The Width of a Circle

If men would consider not so much wherein they differ, as wherein they agree, there would be far less of uncharitableness and angry feeling.--Joseph Addison

Believe it or not, the very day after we put two fire engines out of service, quite by chance, I somehow found myself at Mayor Leighton's front door very early this morning. What are the odds?

I worked much, much later than I would have preferred today, but I still found the time to listen to a whole bunch of people's opinions of the current goings-on with our fire engines, or the lack thereof. And this is what I've learned.

The fire department rank-and-file are certainly not happy with the new staffing and apparatus deployment plan. The fire department union reps are not happy with the new plan. The fire chief is not happy with the new plan. The mayor is not happy with the new plan. And the residents are not happy with the new plan. Yet...remarkably, the new plan is now policy. How the heck did we get to this point?

I'm sure the editorialists at both the Leader and the Voice were more than eager to turn on their word processors today and offer up their comments for tomorrow mornings papers.

Here's WNEP's report:

Friday, May 21, 6:20 p.m.
By Jodi Reynosa

Who Will Fight Fires in Wilkes-Barre?

Who will answer the fire calls? A fire station in Wilkes-Barre has the gear and the fire truck but no one to fight fires. Some people in the city are concerned about how soon they'll get help if there's a fire. The city said it cannot staff all its fire trucks.

The northeast fire station does not have enough firefighters. The station on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard may not be able to respond to nearby fire calls because, according to the chief, of a tight budget and staff limitations.

Other fire stations in the city will have to step in to cover for the northeast station. Some neighbors said that worries them.

"I don't like it. I don't like it at all. My whole house could be burned up," said Wayne Gyle. He lives near the northeast fire station. He and others are worried what could happen if a fire station farther away has to handle their call.

There are five fire stations in the city. There's only one full time station on the city's northern half, the north station on Scott Street. "What's going to happen to these people in the future? If they're going to be understaffed, what's going to happen next time somebody has an emergency that's like two minutes away. God forbid, someone who's even a little farther away than we are," said Ben Schlingman.

The fire chief said new staffing guide lines require three firefighters to operate a fire engine. He said staffing that many may not be possible.

"I'd like to have them have it all, have the three on. I think it would be better because they are busy down there," said Isabel McDermott.

Jason Moore owns a business. He said thousands of dollars of merchandise could be at stake. "If my business is on fire and no one responds to it in a timely fashion, then it's obviously a problem for everybody," he said.

Even though the fire trucks and firefighters will not be able to respond to emergency calls, the ambulance crew on duty there will respond.

From WILK's web site:


Wilkes Barre Council has whittled down staffing at the Northeast fire station. One firefighter, one medic, and no more fire engine. The city says crews had to be shifted to comply with an arbitrator's ruling while holding down overtime. Naturally, some folks in the neighborhood...and the firefighters, expressed concern.

Here is the official press release from the fire fighter's union:

From: Wilkes-Barre Fire Fighters IAFF Local #104:

RE: Staffing issue and operational changes to W-B Fire/EMS

Date: May 21, 2004

Last night, Thursday May 20, 2004, after the regularly held session of city council, the Wilkes-Barre City Fire Fighters and Paramedics were informed that the administration, namely Mayor Leighton, his administrative staff, the fire chief, and all city council persons have decided through a resolution, not listed or mentioned at the Tuesday May 18, 2004 work session or listed on the Thursday May 20, 2004 agenda for council business, added at the last minute to the council session Thursday, a resolution to change the way Wilkes-Barre Fire/ EMS conducts emergency responses throughout the city of Wilkes-Barre.

From information passed on to us only after this meeting, as early as May 23, 2004 the fire department will be transformed by the elimination of yet another two fire engine companies, three in the past two years, and the juggling of fire apparatus city wide to cut manpower shift levels yet again. This elimination of another two engine companies (one at HQ Station/Ross St. & one at NE Station/Connyngham Ave.) will have a drastic affect to the level of service and response times within the city of Wilkes-Barre. This is a true disservice to all the taxpayers of this city. This union has worked very hard to become a team member in the city of Wilkes-Barre, and has demonstrated its good faith by the signing of the labor contract last month through which the city saved over three million dollars from fire fighter concessions.

This union also offered its input as to how the city would benefit through a consolidation of the Engine #9 North Fire Station and the Engine #5/Medic #5 North East Fire Station utilizing the proper staffing numbers to better serve the north section of the city. We are shocked that the city will not entertain this proposal from the fire fighters to maintain the staffing levels that existed in 2003 of 17 per shift while utilizing the new staffing language in the contract. We are only trying to maintain the minimum shift level of 17 fire fighters on duty, not 20, that the city’s own last Municipal Fire Protection Study concluded was needed to operate the city fire department.

It is also our understanding that the goals here were to eliminate personnel from the on duty shift, cut overtime, and to maintain the appearance of five fire stations even though the level of service would be compromised to critical levels for both the citizens and the fire fighters safety. We adamantly view these arbitrary changes as dangerous. At no time has this administration conducted any sort of response time survey in relationship to the administrations new plan to eliminate fire apparatus with water from the neighborhood fire stations, or for that matter given thought as to the operational constraints they are placing on any number of emergency responses be it fire or medical related.

It is with great disappointment, after all the positive inroads that were made, that those who have no other interest other than the dollar amount that can be saved, disregard the overall public and fire fighter safety because of their selfish concern of saving face politically by telling the residents and taxpayers that their neighborhood fire station is still open. This is nothing more than a smoke and mirror tactic to fool the public. We whole heartily object to the lowering of fire fighter shift levels, the moving of fire apparatus with no regard to the role of those manning the fire equipment, the increased response times that will follow, the fact that now North End, East End, Central City and South Wilkes-Barre neighborhood fire stations will not have a vehicle that carries water or even be manned, and the manner in which this will adversely affect the level of service available to the community. This not only affects every fire fighter’s job, it also affects our lives as well, since every fire fighter lives within the boundaries of the city of Wilkes-Barre. We are the city’s residents, families, taxpayers, and supporters. We should not be treated as less.

Okay. How about an e-mail from a city resident to a city fire fighter:

******* An email I received tonight.....names omitted for his/her privacy & street name omitted too for the same. I replied to correct the statement about the engine at HQ...no engine w/ water, just the ladder truck now at HQ. This is why it is so important.

Hey XXXXX --

When I saw your body language at the news conference at HQ a few weeks ago, I knew that things must not be as rosy as they were being made out to be. Now it seems the other shoe has dropped. Saw your sound bytes on BRE tonight and I know you well enough to know that your motives are pure. Made me want to find out more, so I read a recent post on WBOnline that I assume was also yours. Just wanted to say thanks for looking out for our safety.

I know the new administration has inherited a financial black hole, but I do believe life safety--fire and police--should be a non-negotiable. When I read the new plan in the papers I was a little shaken. One engine in service at HQ? There must be some other place to cut expenses. I saw that house across the street go up two years ago and it scared the shit out of me. FD arrived quickly, but it seemed like an eternity with the guy running around screaming that his mother was inside. Of course, in that instance there was nothing that could be done. Still, I'd hate to think that we would have to wait even a fraction of a second longer if it were to happen on XXXXXXXXX St again.

My public position with XXXXXXXXXX limits my ability to take a personal stance on anything to do with city relations... but I'm sure glad you're in our corner. Keep your head up. We'll get that beer sometime soon, I hope. And thanks.*******

Wait! There's more! An e-mail from a city fire fighter:

*******This has been the longest and worst day in my career with the W-B FD. The more things change in politics, the more they stay the same. With the heaviest of hearts for the career I love, I have come to the end of my rope here folks. As someone stated earlier..... last one out, turn off the lights....Elvis has left the building.

We have been forced into a plan that is destine to fail. We were so close to crossing into a new era for the FD. A safer and more efficient one. One that would have consolidated E9 & E5/M5 into a new fire station soon enough. One that would have worked w/ the new contract language of three's on the engines w/ working a 17 minimum per shift on duty strength.

I'm sure now the city will start their campaign to the public that they are actively pursuing the building of a new fire station in the north end of the city. You heard it here first......at the site of the old Soldiers and Sailors School on Mill St. By what they did today..... they flexed their muscle to get the minimum staffing lowered first....... from 17 to 14 before doing it.

An era that would have made it more efficient and safe for everyone. But to them.....as I have said before.....it's all about the benjamins. Sad. They have placed politics and money before the common good of public and fire fighter safety. Please, if you have family or friends in the city, tell them to speak up, tell them to spread the word. Tell them we and the residents are worth more than this.*******

Does anybody want my opinion of where we're currently at and where we need to go? No matter what I say, my comments are sure to piss someone off, but I've never let that sort of thing stifle me before. Heyna?

First of all, I saw the comments on the forum page and please, let's not start spreading conspiracy theories because the forensic audit never took place. I have no idea why it was not conducted other than the enormous expense associated with just such an exhaustive audit, but the fact that it was not undertaken is not even close to certifable proof that somebody bought a Winnebago with taxpayer dollars, okay? Take a f**kin' chill pill with that sh*t.

I don't want to argue about staffing levels or how much money the city can afford, or cannot afford to keep it's residents and first responders as safe as freaking possible when catastrophes decide to break up the boredom that is Wilkes-Barre. Ya'll recognize some goofin' when ya' run across it?

This is where I'm at with this ridiculous situation. If we all want the same thing, that thing being those engines returned to service-how the heck do we make than come about and soon? Like by the end of next week? Does anybody have any REAL bright ideas? Panchromatic ideas?

While the residents of this city are intensely clamoring for an increased police presence on our streets, our fire fighters are seeking safer working conditions. If an engine quickly responds to a fire right around the corner with two men aboard, one mans the pumps and such while the other enters a burning structure all by his lonesome. No matter which way anyone concerned tries to spin that all too routine scenario, it's an unsafe act.

Yet... if we demand that three fire fighters must ride on every engine and that means that two engines will have to be put out of service due to budgetary constraints, we all lose and from what I'm hearing-None of us are liking that program one iota.

What should we do about this obviously dangerous impasse? It seems to me that we need to check some rather weighty egos at the door and hammer out a solution that is somewhat palatable to all of those involved. Saner heads need to prevail on this one.

I really wish we had enough money to take care of business and ensure the safety of our fire fighters as well as our residents at all times. But as we all know, the EMA "expert" the state just hired, one Tommy McG, has left this city unable to afford both the police officers and fire fighters it needs to ensure the safety of all involved. And here we are fighting amongst ourselves about what needs to be done next.

I'll tell you what needs to be done next.

Both Engine 5 and Engine 4 need to be put back into service pronto. Ask anyone who's ever sucked soot for hours on end and they'll second that nomination. And how do we accomplish that?

We get a few important Wilkes-Barre residents that are currently drawing salaries from the City of Wilkes-Barre to sit face-to-face, sans the f**king lawyers, and do what's right for THEIR city. Cursing and screaming is always acceptable as long as the right decision ends up being settled upon. Can we manage that? Or are we going to have to suffer through both sides trading tit-for-tat barbs via the local media for the immediate future while the safety of everyone involved is seriously compromised?

It really seems as if the time has arrived for some previously unknown leaders of men to take the iniative while fully realizing that short-term gains do not necessarily equal long-term successes.

Saner heads. Come on down! You're the next contestant on "The Price Isn't Right!"