The latest controversy in the Queen City has nothing to do with hockey pucks.
Instead the latest developing firestorm is Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s proposed 2013 budget, a budget that representatives of the firefighters' union allege will leave the city’s residents with inferior fire department coverage. The proposed budget, formally presented November 7th, calls for reducing the overall budget by $1.7 million and for reducing the number of firefighters from 145 to 125, according to statements made by Fire Chief Robert Scheirer during a hearing before city council on Tuesday night.
Scheirer made it clear during the session that he would make no personal comments about the potential cuts, noting that an arbitrator’s decision rendered earlier this year was under appeal by both sides. Nevertheless that didn't stop City Council President Julio Guridy from asking a simple but important question about what those cuts would do for manpower.
“It is enough?”
“We adapt. We overcome,” replied Scheirer with the enthusiasm of someone entering a dentist's office for a root canal.
The reduction spread out over four shifts equates to about four less firefighters per shift, according to comments made by John Stribula, president of the IAFF Local 302.
“I think for council members adopting a budget, it’s imperative that you do everything to get what you’re going to consider and then whether you act on this budget is up to you,” he said.
As a result of the arbitration, the number of firefighters has been reduced to 25 per shift. That number could easily drop, according to Stribula, for firefighters out on bereavement, sick or military level or long-term injury, leaving number as low as 21 to 19 per shift, far below National Fire Protection Association standards to adequately achieve the critical response time within eight minutes of dispatch.
“After eight minutes you’re endanger of flashover,” Stribula said.
In a further attempt to persuade city council, Stribula noted that the lack of satisfactory staffing was on display during a recent fire on Chew Street at which time a firefighter searching alone for a two-year-old became trapped on the second floor of the building. Fortunately Stribula noted that both the firefighter and child escaped.
He added that the mayor’s proposed cuts would leave the city with the lowest level of fire protection since 1985, adding that during that 27-year period, the Allentown Fire Department has seen an increase of calls for service by nearly 350 percent.
Councilwoman Jennette Eichenwald responded that you can “always get numbers on your side” and instead sought objectivity in examination of those and other figures, asking Stribula specifically how those number correlate to other cities as it relates to shifts and apparatus.
Guridy commented that the situation “is what it is” although no council member speculated or shared their views on the budget during the hearing.