W-B Firefighters Union Officials Slam Fire Watch Program
WILKES-BARRE — Mayor Tony George has resurrected a Community Fire Watch program in an attempt to increase public safety, but firefighter union officials say it’s a waste of money and is making conditions more dangerous.
George confirmed he is enforcing a fire watch program started during former mayor Tom McGroarty’s administration in which firefighters hit the streets in fire engines during their down time to check on abandoned and vacant structures.
These “hot spots” are known to attract vandals and homeless people who sometimes start small fires for warmth or cooking that either get out of control or reignite and spread.
“We have hot spots for police, where they check certain areas. The fire department has the same thing with all these abandoned houses and vacant houses; they’re usually the ones that catch on fire, so we have them patrolling those areas,” George said.
The mayor also said firefighters should be checking to make sure the tops of fire hydrants are painted with
correct colors to indicate whether they have good, fair or poor water pressure, and that hydrant couplings are properly greased so plugs can easily be removed.
“They check the engines and do their cleanup first, and then they go out. Then they come back and, at the end of the shift, they do their work and do the reports. They can come in and go to lunch, go to the bathroom whenever they want,” he said.
The mayor said he restarted the initiative when he first took office in 2016, “and I guess somewhere along the line they stopped doing it.”
George said he got some initial pushback from International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104 about wearing gear while out on watches and stations being unmanned.
That’s why, George said, he amended his directive so that fire crews at stations with two engines alternate fire watch duties during a shift “so one engine doesn’t do all the work (and) to save on fuel.” And firefighters aren’t required to wear turnout gear during the checks, but they should have it with them, he said.
Mike Bilski, Local 104 president, said the union filed a grievance when McGroarty started the initiative with no bargaining, and has also grieved the practice under George. The grievance filed under McGroarty was dropped because his fire watch program “didn’t last that long.”
Bilski said there were a lot more vacant and abandoned buildings in the city under McGroarty’s administration, such as the Stegmaier Building and a steam heat plant, and firefighters made regular checks on those buildings.
“Now, (George has) us running 24/7,” Bilski said
He said most people never heard of the practice, and those union officials in other cities who have say it’s done on day shifts, but not overnight.
George said firefighters sleeping during an overnight shift would “have to get up and get dressed” for a fire call, adding to response time.
“If they have their gear (while out on a fire watch), they’re halfway to where the fire is. They’re response time would be reduced by probably 50 percent,” he said.
But union officials say that’s not necessarily the case.
Response time debated
According to a post Monday to the union Facebook page, Engine 2 had a delayed response to a structure fire in the North End as the crew was doing a fire watch “on a far street in Miners Mills.”
The post went on to note since the fire watch was restarted:
• Truck 6 and Engine 2 have been out of service for mechanical problems related to continuous use, and Engine 2 remains out of service after nearly a week.
• Two vehicles were involved in traffic accidents during fire watch patrols.
• Fuel consumption has nearly tripled, resulting in “unnecessary pollution and fuel costs.”
The city spent $21,883 on fuel for fire fighting vehicles in 2017 and budgeted $25,000 for 2018, according to monthly financial statements.
Last week, George had likened fire watch patrols to police patrols.
“I don’t have the police department staying in the police station, waiting for a call to go on to save fuel. Public safety is what we’re concerned about. … This was started under McGroarty; I didn’t reinvent the wheel,” George said.
“But I guess they were off for so long that they think they don’t have to do anything, just stay in the station and watch TV,” the mayor continued. “You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that it’s a good idea. It might make them work a little harder, but I think they average about $75,000 (in salary).”
Toll on men, equipment
Bilski on Tuesday posted an open letter on Facebook citing some of the previously noted issues and others.
“There is also the non-monetary cost of the well being of the firefighter. No coach or military commander would grind their units into the ground before they needed them to accomplish a mission, or win the game,” Bilski said.
He previously noted firefighters are working more overtime, with several out on workman’s compensation, six retirements since February, and no plans by George to hire replacements.
As of July 31, staffing overtime has exceeded the $50,000 budgeted for 2018 by more than $40,000.
Bilski said city firefighters have for years “been training, performing community fire watches, doing pre-plans, and teaching fire safety classes during our shifts, but now we are mandated to patrol zones in the city in hopes to find something amiss. We believe there was little or no forethought into the hazards, or risk management into such a policy.”
Bilski wrote firefighters “will accomplish our mission no matter the cost to life and limb, but the new policy makes this task more difficult.”
He said that without “a crystal ball,” a discussion of response times from stations versus out on patrol is moot.
He noted the city and the union will face legal costs associated with the grievance and unfair labor practice filings related to the issue.
Policy to be examined
The mayor did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment on specific examples union officials cited as concerns over the weekend.
City Administrator Ted Wampole declined to comment on the union’s social media posts.
The program “will be evaluated, but the mayor feels it’s in the best interest of the public” for fire watches to continue pending that evaluation, Wampole said. “The mayor has done this as a public safety initiative.”
Wampole did respond to a question about risking firefighter safety, given an Aug. 30 Facebook post of a photo showing a thermometer inside a fire truck showing 90 degrees even after the sun went down because the truck’s air conditioning “couldn’t keep up.”
Wampole said the administration “would expect that while firefighters are out there, they are obviously concerned for their own safety, but they’re also expected to follow the directive of the mayor.”
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