WILKES-BARRE — While Shirley Cook sat watching her grandson Jeremy being sworn in as one of the 11 new fire department recruits, she had tucked into her purse a black-and-white photo of her grandfather, who was a city fireman in the 1800s.
The photo showed a couple horse-drawn wagons outside the Northampton Street fire station. Cook, 85, of Scranton, pointed to one of the drivers, Reuben Daley, and said, “This would be his great-great-grandfather.”
Cook retrieved the photo from many she has at home and planned to make a copy for her grandson.
The equipment has since changed and so has the training that Jeremy Cook and the 10 others will undergo to be able to do their jobs of fighting fires, rescuing people from the Susquehanna River, delivering babies or facing whatever situation they’re presented with on the more than 10,000 runs annually.
In addition to Cook, the other recruits sworn in by Mayor Tom Leighton were Michael Delaney, James Ellis, Christopher Habrack, John Kirn, Walter Letanski, Robert Livingston, Eric Serafin, John Shuey, Daniel Sosick and Derek Zalenski.
“This is a landmark day for public safety in the city of Wilkes-Barre as this swearing in ceremony is the largest in recent history for the fire department, ” Leighton said.
The city earlier this year received $1.2 million from the federal government through a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant that pays for the salaries for eight of the recruits for two years. The city will cover the costs of the other three recruits.
At the time the grant was announced on Feb. 5, Leighton swore in 10 new police recruits at an annual cost of $100,000 each.
Leighton singled out Fire Chief Jay Delaney for preparing the application for the highly competitive grant and thanked U.S. senators Robert Casey, D-Scranton, and Pat Toomey,R-Zionsville, and U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, for their support through letters to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The funding and additional manpower, all of the recruits are men between the age of 25 to 53, come at a time when the department has been working below the minimum staffing level of 17 per shift called for in a fire protection study done by the city in 1995.
The situation was worse in December 2012 when the mayor laid off 11 firefighters due to a budget shortfall. They returned to work in February 2013 under a new budget that raised taxes to pay for their jobs.
If all the recruits pass the rigorous 13-week course at the Public Safety Training Institute at Luzerne County Community College, they will boost the department staff to 70, Delaney said.
At that number, the department will be able to operate Engine 3 90 percent of the time to cover from South Wilkes-Barre to the Rolling Mill Hill and Iron Triangle sections of the city, he said. Engine 3 has been out of service most of the time and last year responded to 70 calls, compared to 1,829 for Engine 1 and 1,432 for Engine 2.
Three of the recruits are experienced firefighters and will need only a week of training at the institute. They’ll start with the department next week and go for the training later on. By August, all 11 should be on duty.
“Our goal,” Delaney said, “is no matter what people dial 911 for, when the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department responds they can handle any emergency in as effective manner as possible.”