Firefighters protest overtime cuts
Published: March 9, 2010
WILKES-BARRE - Upset with understaffing and a recent decision to freeze further overtime allotment, members of the city fire department protested early Monday evening outside the South Station on High Street, calling for city hall to bolster their ranks or allot more money to pay firefighters to cover shifts.
"We want more guys. Obviously it's nice to get overtime every once in a while," said Mike Bilski, secretary of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "We need the guys on the scene to do the job."
Roughly 20 firefighters picketed in front of South Station in response to a decision announced Friday in a memo from Chief Jay Delaney to assistant chiefs notifying them that minimum on-duty staffing would be trimmed to 12 firefighters from 14, or five below the number recommended by the city's fire protection study.
Besides staffing, no additional overtime funds will be doled out this year. At this juncture, the city has spent 70 percent of the $100,000 budgeted for overtime hours, and the remaining money might be used up either next month or in May, Delaney said.
The impromptu protest came after Bilski and other department members called coworkers when they finished discussing an increase in money for overtime with city officials. An attempt to reach Delaney in response to the protest and the meeting was unsuccessful.
Jeff Berlew, a firefighter at South Station, said the city created its own predicament by not replacing departed firefighters.
"For the last three years, they budgeted the same amount of overtime," he said. "Obviously, when we have older people retire, and they don't replace them, then we're going to run into the trouble with overtime."
Since 2002, 19 fire department members have retired while money for overtime has remained stagnant, leaving the city reliant on calling in extra manpower at a higher cost, Bilski said.
Under the latest changes, the number of houses running engines may be also be pared to two. In the event there are only 12 firefighters on duty, South Station will only provide ambulance service, meaning stations on East Ross and North Washington streets will be left to pick up the slack.
That could mean longer response times in which precious minutes are lost, or it could put members of ambulance crews at risk if they try to conduct rescues without proper equipment or back up, said Mike Crawford, an emergency medical technician based at South Station.
"I hope it's nothing serious like someone gets hurt or we lose a life in the fire, but people have to realize we've been doing this job the past couple years with barely enough people," he said.