W-B drops 1 firefighter each shift

October 10, 2012

WILKES-BARRE -- The city has reduced the number of firefighters per shift from 12 to 11, but so far there's no indication that any layoffs are pending, Mike Bilski, president of the firefighters union said Tuesday.

Bilski said he's heard rumors the city plans to lay off 11 firefighters, but he's not gotten anything official from the city.

"I've heard a thousand rumors. I'm hearing 20, 11, 6," Bilski said. "I've spoken to human resources almost every day. There is nothing in the works to lay off, as far as I know."

Drew McLaughlin, administrative coordinator for the city, said the city has not ruled out layoffs in any department. Any numbers being spread by the rumor mill are "unsubstantiated speculation," he said.

Bilski said he believes rumors of 11 layoffs may be related to a reduction in manning from the city made about a week ago – a move he was told would likely be temporary.

The city currently has 68 firefighters and three active fire stations: South station located on High Street, Hollenback, located on Hollenback Avenue, and the headquarters, located on Ross Street.

Bilski explained that the city has the right to put the South Station out of service if there are not enough firefighters – either due to some being off on vacation, sick, or personal days – available to man all stations without calling someone in for overtime.

Under the union contract, the city is required to have three firefighters per engine, two per ladder truck and an EMT for the ambulance, Bilski said.

When the South Station is closed, the firefighter normally stationed there would be sent to the Hollenback Station, giving the station a fourth person for the engine, Bilski said. Now that the manning's down to 11, that's no longer happening.

Mayor Tom Leighton said the reduction was made to save on overtime and will not impact safety.

Leighton explained that the city has 16 to 17 firefighters scheduled to work each shift. Virtually every day, two to three, and sometimes as many as five, firefighters are off, either because they called in sick, are injured or have a personal or vacation day.

Leighton said prior to the reduction, the city would call firefighters in for overtime if the number of available workers dropped below 12. Now it must drop below 11 for overtime to be offered.

Bilski said he'd prefer the Hollenback station get the extra person in those instances, but the city is within its rights to reduce the manning as long as it meets the minimum people per piece of equipment. It's meeting that requirement with having 11 firefighters on.

"Having 11 is a way for them to save on overtime," Bilski said. "Hopefully after the new year we'll get the 12th guy back."

Leighton said he hopes to be able to do that, but can't make any promises.

"I will not speculate on whether we will restore it, but our goal is to restore it," he said.