Fire dept. loses lone fire truck due to money woes

The engine was pulled from service pending a sale; an ambulance and other lifesaving equipment were sold earlier this year


The Times Leader

WYOMING, Pa. — The plug has been pulled on Wyoming Hose Co. No. 1’s advanced life support unit, another casualty in a series of shakeups spurred by financial struggles at the Eighth Street station.

Losses continued to pile up for the fleet as its lone fire engine was pulled from service, pending a sale. An ambulance and other lifesaving equipment were also sold earlier this year. Remaining for the nearly 20 volunteers are a rescue truck and ambulance with a basic life support (BLS) unit.

Assistant fire chief and board of directors member Bill Hizny said the company hopes to replace the engine sometime soon.

Despite the shuffling, Wyoming Mayor Bob Boyer maintains the borough’s nearly 3,100 residents can be confident their safety was never at risk.

“We’ve never had a gap in (ALS) coverage,” he said. “There isn’t any significant change.”

Boyer said Wyoming Hose Co. No. 2, located less than a mile away at 70 E. Third St., still has a fully operating fire engine. Additionally, West Wyoming, West Pittston and other nearby stations have continued to assist on emergency calls in the 1.6-square-mile borough.

Hizny said the company was unable to sustain the steep cost of their advanced life support (ALS) unit, Medic 27, which was nearly double the cost of a BLS unit.

ALS units are typically stocked with advanced lifesaving equipment, Hizny said. The staff is also able to administer specific medications and usually have more training than members of BLS units.

“Just with those prices alone for payroll, the increase in the supplies and more specialized drugs, plus workman’s compensation and other insurance, the cost was significantly higher than what was the norm,” said Hizny, a Wyoming volunteer for nearly 10 years.

In the end, he said, there wasn’t enough money coming in to sustain the unit.

Layoffs
A month ago service was permanently cut on Medic 27 and six employees working full-time hours were laid off, placing friction between Boyer and some volunteers over what unit should replace them.

Several volunteers lobbied for Geisinger’s Medic 303, an ALS unit out of Pittston, hoping they would contribute rent for using their station.

“They were there covering the town while we were getting all of our ducks in a line to see who gave us the best option for ALS coverage in the town,” he said.

Documents obtained through Luzerne County 911 show dispatch protocol updates requested by Boyer on Feb. 27, changing the ALS response priority for the borough. Effective March 2, Medic 303 was relegated to second due while Medic 29, another Pittston unit, was named first due.

“That wasn’t our choice,” he said. “It was the mayor’s.”

For years, Hizny said, the company had always had a strong working relationship with borough officials.

“Normally they’d ask us why we’d want these people and where they’re coming from. This time we didn’t have much of a say, it was just kind of done,” he said.

Ultimately, losing Medic 27 forced Boyer’s hand to secure a replacement.

“Boroughs have the ultimate responsibility” he said. “There’s state laws that the municipality is responsible for designating what services are dispatched.”

Attempts to reach Boyer for additional comments were not returned Tuesday afternoon.

In a statement, a Geisinger spokeswoman said Medic 303 responds to the community when requested and is committed to working with community responders to ensure coverage continues within a changing market.

Multiple calls to Medic 29 in Pittston were not returned.

Failing finances
According to Times Leader archives, the Internal Revenue Service in September filed a $219,938 lien against the company for unpaid annual federal unemployment tax for 2011 and quarterly taxes spanning from Dec. 31, 2011 to March 31, 2014.

Volunteers began to notice effects of the financial turmoil last year, said one volunteer who requested anonymity.

“Over the summer, UGI came to cut power multiple times,” she said. “Water shut off notices were posted multiple times. One of the members was paying bills himself out of his own pocket just to keep it open.”

In addition, documents from the state auditor general’s office show the Wyoming Volunteer Firefighters’ Relief Association (VFRA) was found out of compliance with the department in 2011 and 2014.

The Wyoming VFRA governs both Wyoming hose companies, funding officers’ death benefits, insurance premiums and other financial protection. From 2007-13, it received an average $21,116 per year in state funds distributed by the borough.

The reports show the relief association did not correct findings of an initial report in 2009, which found insufficient bond coverage.

Essentially insurance in case the relief association’s funds are misappropriated, the bond amount needs to be at least as great as the maximum cash balance of current funds, according to state law.

In 2011, the department found the relief association’s bond coverage amount of $90,000 to be insufficient to cover the cash assets of $244,176. The department again in 2014 found a similar disparity.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the department is typically concerned when auditors see an infraction more than once.

“Anybody can make mistakes,” DePasquale said. “But it’s concerning that it was flagged not one time, but it’s the second time we’ve seen it.”

Pasquale said it was not a common issue.

“A minority of VFRA’s have this finding,” he said.

Expensive asset
Though the hose company is a separate entity from the borough, Boyer said it seemed like the service just became too expensive for it to bear.

“We need to start looking at regionalism for fire departments and medical services,” he said. “The volunteers do phenomenal jobs but its just not a system that some places can sustain.”

Hizny said the company will look to strengthen their working relationship with the borough.

For now, they’re taking it one step at a time.

“Things are moving along a lot better than we initially thought they would,” he said. “So we’re still going to provide the best care we can and the best service we can, just at the levels we’re currently at.”

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