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Firefighter cuts: Union, City disagree on safe number for staffing

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 21 2012 06:50:08 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 21 2012 07:59:28 PM CST

When do firefighter cuts put your safety and theirs at risk?

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

When do firefighter cuts put your safety -- and theirs -- at risk? That's the question in Allentown, the latest city in our region looking at steep fire cuts. The chief insists safety won't be compromised, and at least one neighboring fire commissioner backs him up.

Every time a fire truck rolls out, the clock is ticking.

"We need to get 15 firefighters to a scene within eight minutes, 90 percent of the time," said John Stribula, head of the Allentown firefighters' union.

But for struggling cities, the cost is also adding up.

"Fire departments are facing cuts, they're closing stations, they're losing manpower," said Allentown Fire Chief Robert Scheirer.

That's now the case in Allentown, where 20 firefighters are on the chopping block in Mayor Ed Pawlowski's new budget. That would bring the total number down to 125. Citywide, as few as 25 firefighters could be working at one time.

The union claims that could add critical minutes to response times, especially in the city's far western and eastern edges.

"Firefighters are not going to be available to be on scene to make that critical rescue," claimed Stribula.

But according to Scheirer, surrounding fire departments already pick up the slack. And even now, they're rarely needed.

"We use mutual aid on average of between half a dozen and a dozen times a year," he said. "It's not a lot."

When a call comes in, National Fire Protection Association guidelines call for four firefighters on each engine. Right now, Allentown only has three -- and sometimes as few as two. The chief said it's not ideal, but it's adequate.

"Ninety-five percent of our fire incidents in the city of Allentown are handled and mitigated with less than 12 men," he said.

But in a 2002 letter, Scheirer himself called the department out for "unsafe staffing," saying that fewer than four firefighters on a truck put crews' safety at risk.

Today, Scheirer stands by the letter, but insisted the department can respond adequately with smaller crews.

"It's the reality of the economic times," he said. "It's what can your city afford, and what are your taxpayers willing to pay for?"

Bethlehem and Reading are already operating much smaller crews.

Tempers flared last year when Reading cut back to just 20 firefighters per shift.

"Thankfully, no one has died yet as a result of these cuts," said Mike Shoumlisky with the Reading firefighters' union said last August.

In Bethlehem, they're now down to 18 firefighters per shift. In spite of that, the fire commissioner insists safety has not been compromised.

"It hasn't really affected us," said Fire Commissioner George Barkanic. "Unless there's equipment put out of service, it shouldn't lower response times."

Rank-and-file in Allentown remain unconvinced.

"You can use Bethlehem as an example, that they have the poorest fire protection in the Commonwealth," said Stribula.

With overall fire calls down -- both locally and nationally -- Allentown's chief believes he can reach every call in time.

"We're going to continue to do our job," he said. "We're going to get to you. We're going to put the fire out."

"How fast and at what risk?  That's where the administration and the firefighters' union disagree.