Community Firewatch Program Under Fire in Wilkes-Barre

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Firefighters in Wilkes-Barre say a plan to make neighborhoods safer is having the opposite effect.

Members of the firefighters union call the Community Firewatch program "costly and dangerous."

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George reinstated the program just three weeks ago, after it was phased out several years ago.

The mayor is a former police chief in Wilkes-Barre and likens Community Firewatch to having police patrol a beat.

Firefighters call it a waste of time.

Wilkes-Barre Ladder Engine 6 passes through Public Square, but it is not headed to a fire. It's headed to a neighborhood where it will drive around as part of the city's Community Firewatch program.

"I would say it has been ineffective," said Jeremy Cook, union vice-president.

Cook says most of his colleagues wonder why they're putting wear and tear on aging equipment like Ladder Engine 6, which gets less than 10 miles per gallon.

"It's wasting taxpayer money. It's putting undue fatigue on the firefighters who would have to respond to other calls," Cook said.

The mayor says the program encourages firefighters to connect with neighborhoods and look for fire traps. The union says it can put crews out of position to respond to an emergency.

A couple of weeks ago, a woman whose friend was overdosing on drugs came to the fire department headquarters on Ross Street and started banging on the door for help. But every firefighter on duty was out on Community Firewatch. A crew just happened to be returning from a firewatch patrol and got help.

Firefighters say the incident shows how the Community Firewatch program takes them away from their centrally located fire stations and, sometimes, farther away from where they are needed.

Wilkes-Barre City Administrator Ted Wampole wants firefighters to give the three-week-old Community Firewatch a chance.

"They could be in an area where fire breaks out and they're right on top of it as well," said Wampole.

Wampole says that after talking with firefighters, Mayor George has already tweaked the program to cut back on patrols.

"But the program is still ongoing, and the mayor believes it is a good program that we're going to let run for a while, and we'll evaluate it periodically," Wampole added.

"The program is not effective and it needs to stop," said Cook.

Both sides say it will be tough to evaluate Community Firewatch.

Cities measure the success of police patrols by a drop in the number of break-ins or other crimes. Firefighters predict taxpayers will measure the Community Firewatch program by the amount of money spent on fueling aging fire engines that get poor gas mileage.

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