WILKES-BARRE – More than 100 firefighters and their supporters from near and far rallied in Public Square on Thursday night before marching around City Hall chanting: Bring them back!
They were referring to the 11 firefighters that Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton furloughed last week with no assurance they will be reinstated after Jan. 1.
Mike Bilski, president of the Wilkes-Barre firefighters union, estimated 40 city firefighters were at the rally; the rest were on duty. The other 60 or so at the rally were from other departments. It's not bad for short notice, he said of the turnout.
Michael Conway, of Goshen Fire Department just outside West Chester, came to support the brothers from Wilkes-Barre with about 30 other firefighters from the Philadelphia area.
Kingston native Bob Roberts, who lives outside Gettysburg and works for the Washington, D.C., Fire Department, came because the fire department's been abused in Wilkes-Barre for a long time. … To see them get cut, it's another case of the politicians balancing the budget on the back of the public servant.
Scott McNew, who lost his job as a Chambersburg firefighter in July, said he came to support my brother firefighters here and protest the mayor of this city placing the citizens in jeopardy.
Peter Huf, vice president of the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association, said he and another firefighter drove from Upper Darby because of the layoffs and the implications it has for the safety not only of the firefighters I represent, but also the citizens.
The main thing that we find disheartening is that most of these leaders in these communities aren't willing to sit down and talk about ways to save money. We have a lot of great ideas that aren't necessarily an impact to public safety. … We understand there's a financial crisis. Our beef is that nobody is truly willing to sit and try to work some of these details out, Huf said.
The Rev. Adam Sexton, a volunteer firefighter in Nanticoke and chaplain for the Nanticoke and Wilkes-Barre fire departments, said the furloughs are absolutely immoral. There's just no excuse for it. They take 11 heroes and tell them they're not worth anything more than a line item on a city budget. To me, that's reprehensible, Sexton said.
John Hewitt said he and about 15 to 20 others from Scranton came out to support our brother firefighters. … Living and working as a firefighter in the city of Scranton, we have firsthand knowledge of layoffs. … We're down here to let their mayor know that it didn't work in Scranton and it will not work here.
Hewitt said 37 firefighters were laid off in Scranton over the last year and a half, which resulted in additional loss of property.
Scranton firefighter Rick Rondomanski said longer response times led to two houses catching on fire when it only should have been one. … Response time is everything. Every minute a fire burns, it doubles in size.
Scranton firefighter John Judge said he hopes the mayor down here ends up realizing what our mayor ended up realizing – that these cuts are dangerous to the citizens and the firefighters.
Unfortunately, sometimes it's going to take a tragic event or near-tragic event. That's what happened in Scranton and that was the only way 12 of our brothers were brought back immediately, when two females almost perished in a fire when it took us 10 minutes to get there. It's unacceptable. The citizens of Wilkes-Barre deserve better, and hopefully we're able to help them do that, Judge said.
Also among the protesters was Richard Owens, who said he worked as a firefighter for 31 years, five months and seven days until he retired from the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department three weeks ago after Leighton requested voluntary retirements so layoffs could be avoided.
I was under the impression that with five retirees, they wouldn't be laying off 11 guys. It's nuts because somebody's going to die (in a fire), either somebody who lives in the city or a firefighter. There's not enough firemen, I don't care what the mayor says, Owens said.
Bilski said that eight years ago, there were 88 firefighters in Wilkes-Barre; now there are 53.
We're out here to tell the public, to remind them, that we're not safe in Wilkes-Barre. Right now, we only have two engines and one truck covering the whole 7.2 (square) miles of Wilkes-Barre. The census states we have 41,000 people, but during the day, we have people working in town, and they never count the college kids. So it's estimated some days we have 60,000 people in town. And if we have multiple calls, we're not going to be able to cover them, Bilski said.