Arguments over fire protection are heating up and causing friction between city firefighters and city officials. Both sides are speaking out after abc27 broke the story of unmanned fire stations.
Around noon Wednesday, "Wagon 4" backed into the right bay inside the Paxton Fire Company in Shipoke. Dubbed Station 6 by the Harrisburg Bureau of Fire, "Wagon 4" has temporarily been renamed "Engine 6" until further notice. The station was not staffed until abc27 broke a story Tuesday evening about it being unmanned for about a week, according to sources. On Wednesday, Deputy Fire Chief Gary Neff said that report was inaccurate.
"(Station 6) was unmanned for about two days over a weekend," said Neff.
When asked why "Wagon 4" was brought down after the story aired, he responded that was coincidence because of a "shift change" at 4 p.m..
47-year-old Scott Young has been fighting fires for most his life in Harrisburg. He sat down with abc27 on Wednesday and disputed Neff's claims.
"I'm sorry...my personal opinion...it was reactionary," said Young. "It was from last Wednesday morning until last night that (Station 6) had no piece of apparatus in it, no crew."
Young is also the Vice President for Local Union IAFF 428. He said the issues really began when "Tower 3" broke last Wednesday. Neff also said that's when "Tower 3" went out of service and reasoned why Station 8 in South Allison Hill went unmanned for "12 hours at the most."
Young explained "Tower 3" is an important piece of equipment because it is a 'quint'; a multi-purpose fire apparatus that is a ladder and pumps water. Neff said the city's two reserve engines were also down for several weeks. He explained "Tower 4", a 1987 model, is in need of several parts that are on backorder because of the truck's age. The other reserve, a 1998 model, needed a specially made belt in Ohio Neff said.
According to Neff, having one or more stations unmanned is "typical."
"To have a vacancy at a given fire station at any given time occurs every day," he said.
Neff further explained it is department procedure to move apparatus around to different fire stations when needed.
Young argues Neff's claim is misleading.
"We're not always going to be here in the station physically, but we will be available to run calls," he said. "This was a case of not having a vehicle available to run out of these station. That's a danger."
Neff maintained that Harrisburg's population was never at risk when Station 8 and Station 6 were both unmanned. He explained Station 2 on N. 16th St. and Station 1 on N. 6th St. were accessible.
"Oh sure, they can touch anywhere in the city in that three to five minutes," said Neff.
Last year, the Harrisburg Bureau of Fire made a promise that the department could reach anyone within city limits in three to five minutes. Young argued that is nearly impossible when half of the southern stations are unmanned.
"If we had clear roads and nothing blocking us, that's possible," he said. "But, getting to south Harrisburg in three to five minutes, no. You're talking traffic you're talking road construction any factor could delay that."
Neff and Young agreed that the city relies on surrounding fire departments outside city limits for help on average about 30 to 35 times a year and offers help upwards of 90 times a year. The Dauphin County Volunteer Firefighters Association told abc27 the county "always has the city's back" and had helped more often recently because of Harrisburg's financial constraints.
Young said that's just how the brotherhood of firefighters works, but as the capitol city, he would prefer Harrisburg not rely on outside help. He explained doing so only puts strain on crews and taxpayers in smaller townships.
Because of its utility, Neff explained "Tower 3" gets the most wear and tear. Young said that is understandable, but his gripe is he hears the department can't afford to fix the trucks in a timely manner.
"That's special maintenance that needs to be done elsewhere and a lot of times it gets held up because there's just no money to pay for it," he said.
Neff did explain that most of the newer models run in-and-out of the shop often because they work on computer chips and it takes city maintenance personnel longer to diagnose the issue. But, he said when it comes to money, that's not an issue.
"We've been very fortunate this year to be able to fund all the apparatus as far as repairs," Neff said.
Neff explained the Act 47 process has generated additional revenue for the city. About $4 million as of July has come in from the raised EIT hike this year according to the city receiver's office. Neff also said $5 million in state funding from this budget was also a big help.
Although, a report by abc27 in July pointed out the line item for Harrisburg fire protection was $450,000. The rest of the money was available in the form of applied grants. Receiver William Lynch told abc27 at the time he would put the majority of the money in the general fund to pay down the city's growing deficit.
Bottom line; Young wants the city to put a priority on public safety for residents and firefighters.
"Our guys are good at multi-tasking because that's what we have to do," said Young.
Deputy Chief Neff said one of the reserve engines should be back in service Thursday morning and "Tower 3" should be fixed by Friday.
"Imagine that," Young said.