WILKES-BARRE — The union representing Wilkes-Barre firefighters filed an unfair labor practice against the city, alleging Mayor Tony George ordered the fire watches in retaliation for public criticism of “dangerously insufficient staffing levels” in the department.
The Sept. 27 filing with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board came more than a month after the firefighters began patrolling the neighborhoods around-the-clock in department apparatus in what the mayor described as a public safety measure.
But Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters said the watches had the opposite effect, placing its members at risk by putting them out of position to timely respond to calls.
A phone message left with the mayor Tuesday afternoon was not returned.
The watches have been conducted for years, however not to the extent they have been since an Aug. 15 memo directed firefighters to conduct the annual hydrant inspections in conjunction with watches.
“These functions, which previously had not been assigned to the fire fighters, are the equivalent of ‘punishment detail,’ in that they present significant risks for fire fighters while on the job, as well as jeopardizing the safety of … fire fighters by placing them in a position where they cannot respond to actual fire calls in a timely manner,” the union said.
That was the case the morning of Aug. 12 when the alarm sounded for a house fire in the 300 block of Stanton Street, the union argues.
The department’s ranks have decreased due to unfilled vacancies from retirements and firefighters out with injuries. When staffing is at the minimum level of 11 firefighters per shift, the department “browns out” apparatus and temporarily takes them out of service as it did for Engine 3 the morning of the Stanton Street fire, the union said.
“This location lies on the border of the Engine 3 and Engine 1 first due areas. Once again, Engine 3 was browned out of service with only the minimum of 11 firefighters on duty and the second due engine having to come from North Washington St. in Parsons. With the heavy fire conditions in two structures faced on arrival, there is no doubt that having Engine 3 in service would have made a measurable difference in the outcome,” the union said in a Facebook post the day of the fire.
The union noted there was a direct connection between the post and the stepped up watches that took effect three days later.
“More to the point, these changes were brought in direct retaliation for the criticism of the City – and Mayor Anthony George, in particular – by bargaining unit members on social media,” the union said. “In fact, Mayor George admitted as much to union officials after they complained about the assignments.”
The mayor has said the watches benefit firefighters’ health and are less expensive than what the average firefighter is paid in wages and benefits.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.