Retired fire chief blasts Pa. mayor's controversial fire watch program

“This expenditure results in a zero gain of safety for the citizens,” retired Wilkes-Barre Chief Jacob Lisman said

By Jerry Lynott
The Times-Leader

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Retired city fire chief Jacob Lisman has concerns about Mayor Tony George’s controversial fire watch program.

“This expenditure results in a zero gain of safety for the citizens,” Lisman wrote in a letter to the Times Leader, which was followed by an interview Friday.

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George's program has firefighters patrolling neighborhoods around-the-clock in department apparatus. (Photo/WBFD)
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George's program has firefighters patrolling neighborhoods around-the-clock in department apparatus. (Photo/WBFD)

The mayor isn’t impressed, even though Lisman has more than 30 years of service to his credit.

Instead, George believes the retired chief’s move to Mountain Top means Lisman should keep his thoughts about Wilkes-Barre to himself.

“I don’t see how he could even talk about it,” George said.

George’s program has firefighters patrolling neighborhoods around-the-clock in Wilkes-Barre Fire Department apparatus, which he says benefits public safety and is better for firefighters’ health.

The mayor said he stands firm behind the watches, which Lisman called wasteful.

Their war of words is only the latest skirmish that has pitted George against firefighters and at least one member of council, Beth Gilbert, who has criticized his actions on social media.

‘Surprise and dismay’

Lisman said what he saw happening in the city and department where he worked from 1975 to 2008 moved him to write a letter to the editor.

“It was with much surprise and dismay when I read that City Hall had once again ordered the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department to resume the unproven practice of daily fire watches,” Lisman said in the letter.

When he was appointed chief in 2004 by then-Mayor Tom Leighton, Lisman said in the letter, “My very first order was to cancel the fire watch program.”

Not one working fire was found on the patrols, they caused “needless wear and tear on the apparatus,” and it “wasted” an “incredible amount of money on very expensive fuel,” he added.

The watches detract from the issue of understaffing in the department, which jeopardizes public safety, Lisman argues.

“When I was hired in 1975 the city had nine engines, five aerial trucks and eight firehouse. I completely understand that finances are a real concern; however, at some point all elected officials must ask,’When do reductions in fire safety become unconscionable?’” Lisman wrote in the letter.

“Tony George should stop running around not unlike Chicken Little shouting, ‘the sky is falling,’ or in this case, ‘vacant buildings might burn,’ and begin to solve the problem of men, women and children living in homes that are not protected by an acceptable number of firefighters,” Lisman wrote.

Staffing issues

The Wilkes-Barre firefighters represented by Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters have raised concerns about staffing and hit on the same points as Lisman, but to no avail, in an attempt to stop the mandated patrols.

The department had been conducting watches, but not to the extent where the union said it’s led to equipment breakdowns and reserve vehicles being activated to replace those in the shop for repairs.

Among the reasons George listed for the patrols was public support. George said the people he’s spoken to “think everybody should work eight hours a day.”

He’s of the opinion firefighters have too much down time when they’re not answering calls and the patrols get them out in the neighborhoods where they’re visible and in position to respond to alarms.

To the “we don’t want them to sit around,” argument, Lisman responded, “If Tony George had ever gone inside a burning building with full turnout gear and self contained breathing apparatus strapped on his back, dragging a hose, he would realize it’s not something you do 40 hours a week. I think a reasonable person would agree with that analysis.”

Residency dispute

George also stated — wrongly — that Lisman lives in a municipality that does not have a fire department, and therefore favors doing without fire service in Wilkes-Barre.

“Actions speak louder than words,” George said. “His example is he moved out of the city where there’s no fire department.”

Lisman, 69, responded that he could see where his residency in Wright Township might factor into the mayor’s argument. But his experience, including 12 years as training officer and five years as chief, should be taken into account, he added.

“If I were an engineer who moved out of the city who looked at the wall along Solomon Creek and said ‘This would be the best way to fix it,’ I don’t think it would make much difference,” Lisman offered as an analogy.

By the way, Lisman said, “We do have a fire department” and it’s a volunteer department.

Copyright 2018 The Times-Leader

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