WILKES-BARRE — The mayor has ended a stepped-up fire watch program that has been criticized heavily as a waste of resources by the city’s firefighters union.
In a press release issued Saturday, Mayor Tony George stated: “At this time, after evaluating all of the available data and information collected over the past two months, the decision has been made to restore the prior Community Fire Watch schedule.”
The statement continues: “To be clear, fire watches will continue, and we will continue to explore ways to better serve the citizens and enhance public safety.”
The union has said fire trucks were not meant to be used for continuous patrolling and it had caused vehicles to be put out of service.
The mayor, meanwhile, argued the watches benefited firefighters’ health and were less expensive than what the average firefighter is paid in wages and benefits.
As his release stated, the mayor wanted firefighters to be “more visible in the community throughout their shift.” He also believed the watches would make “firefighters and fire equipment more readily available to respond to incidents.”
The union forcefully disagreed, however.
In fact, it said the increased patrols were having the exact opposite effect, placing its members out of position to timely respond to calls.
On Sept. 27, Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state Labor Relations Board.
The union argued George ordered the watches in retaliation for public criticism about “dangerously insufficient staffing levels” in the fire department.
The watches have been conducted for years, however not to the extent they have been since mid-August.
That’s when firefighters began patrolling neighborhoods around-the-clock in what George described as a public safety measure.
And in his release, he still pointed to the “many benefits” of the watches.
But firefighters said besides the wear and tear on equipment and possibly putting them in a less-than-ideal position to respond to a fire or other emergency, the watches were not good for firefighters’ health. They cited heat stress during patrols in apparatus as one factor.
Mike Bilski, president of the Local 104, previously wrote on the union’s Facebook page that the stepped-up watches were done with “little or no forethought into the hazards, or risk management into such a policy.”
Bilski did not respond to messages Saturday.
And the union’s Facebook page did not comment on the administration’s change of heart as of press time.
Messages for Mayor Tony George and city Fire Chief Jay Delaney also were not returned.