WILKES-BARRE — As much as the firefighters’ union protests, Mayor Tony George maintains the fire watches they’re ordered to perform throughout the city are working.
“We’re not having any fires,” George offered as proof of the program’s success.
Firefighters have been spending part of their shifts out of the stations and driving the engines and an aerial ladder truck through the neighborhoods to check on vacant buildings and be seen.
The mayor instituted the practice when he took office in January 2016 and resumed it within the past couple of weeks in the name of public safety.
“I thought they were doing it, but they weren’t doing it,” George said Tuesday. He explained that he adopted the practice from former Mayor Tom McGroarty.
“I think its preventative,” George said, and compared it to police parking in high-crime hot spots.
Instead it’s proved provocative, leading to a fight with the union on the best use of the department’s resources.
The fire department responded to 4,319 calls last year, with only 132 of them fires, according to the 2017 Annual Report. It listed 2,375 rescue and emergency service calls. When combined with the 7,822 Emergency Medical Services calls involving the two ambulances, the total was 12,141.
Mike Bilski, president of the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104, took the union’s Facebook page to state its case and seek public support.
“We believe there was little or no forethought into the hazards, or risk management into such a policy,” Bilski said.
The department and the city are spending more on fuel running the apparatus, Bilski pointed out. It’s also adding to the wear and tear on the equipment and affecting the well-being of firefighters, the uniom says.
“As Wilkes-Barre firefighters we are proud to serve the citizens and visitors of Wilkes-Barre. We will accomplish our mission no matter the cost to life and limb, but the new policy makes this task more difficult. We do this, not with fear of termination for disobeying a direct order, but with our oath to duty and honor,” Bilski said.
The special operations truck and fire Truck 6 have been involved in traffic accidents that will lead to down time for repairs in the future, the union said in a post Monday. Aerial ladder Truck 6 had been out of service for mechanical problems for a while, but Engine 2 is still out due to the patrols, the union said.
En route to a structure fire in the North End, Engine 2 was delayed because it had been on a fire watch in Miners Mills, the union said.
There should not have been a delay, the mayor said. The firefighters should be able to respond quicker because they are on the road, he said.
“Actually it’s preparedness,” the mayor added.
The mayor was uncertain if the firefighters had to return to the station to put on their protective turnout gear. “They’re supposed to be (wearing it),” he said.
But firefighters posted a picture of someone in one of the apparatus Monday holding a thermometer reading 90 degrees. “Did you know that heat stress is a main factor in sudden cardiac arrest in firefighters?” the post asked.
The patrols aren’t constant and crews alternate so that not all of the firefighters and apparatus are out at the same time, the mayor said. They also limit their coverage to halfway between the next station, he said.
No matter the distance, the union objected and filed a grievance and is in the process of filing an unfair labor practice, Bilski said. The labor issues will add to the overall cost, he said.
In a turn of the tables, Bilski and the union found themselves asking for help in their fight.
“Any assistance from the public would be greatly appreciated, and I would personally thank you all in advance for any help that can be rendered,” Bilski said.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.