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Wilmington fire fighters, city council members, urge fire chief to reopen engine

(Zoe Read/WHYY)

(Zoe Read/WHYY)

Wilmington fire fighters and city leaders are calling on Wilmington Fire Chief Anthony Goode to keep a local engine in operation.

The practice of taking fire trucks out of service is an unpopular but common strategy to save on overtime costs within fire departments.

Wilmington Fire Department’s Engine 6 on Union Street will be shut down for the remainder of the year because the department has used all of the $500,000 the city allocated for overtime costs this year—down from $1.5 million due to a grant termination.

On Tuesday, members of the Wilmington Fire Fighters Association, the local fire fighters’ union and members of city council held a press conference to educate the public on the issue and to call on Goode to reopen Engine 6, and consider putting a plan in place to address overtime issues.

“We should not be having a fight regarding public safety. We should be fighting for public safety, not against public safety. And it’s an unfortunate dynamic when we put money before people,” said Councilwoman Sherry Dorsey Walker.

“Stop playing politics, stop playing games with lives—let’s start saving lives. That’s what fire fighters were born to do.”

The fire department had suspended the practice of shutting down engines after fire fighters Christopher Leach and Jerry Fickes were killed in the line of duty in September.

The engine closest to the burning building was suspended that day. While no connection to the deaths was proven, firefighters were outraged when Goode reinstated the practice a couple weeks ago.

“I don’t know why all of sudden he’s bringing it back now and slapping us in the face,” said Tim Taggart, vice president of the Wilmington Fire Fighters Association. “We need this process to stop to protect our firefighters and the citizens, because the citizens are what matters to us, not the dollar.”

Firefighters say closing engines is not only a safety risk to fire fighters, but also puts residents in danger because it delays time until the next engine arrives. Taggart said the engine protects about 13,000 Wilmington residents.

“Those residents now have to be delayed for another engine or somebody to come from a farther distance to protect them,” he said.

Bruce Schweiger, president of the Fire Fighters Association, said the practice also places a burden on other fire companies.

“You’re basically relying on an outside source to help us, which they’re more than willing to do and they do it a lot on our bigger events, but at a certain time they need to go home,” he said. “Some of them are volunteer firefighters that have full-time jobs where they can’t sit in here for 36, 48 hours with us.”

City Councilman Bob Williams said the fire department currently is down 19 fire fighters, while another 20 fire fighters are on desk duty and there are no plans for an academy class.

“The problem is the Chief isn’t coming forward with a plan to stop this. If he came out with a plan, saying, ‘I’m going to recruit a class, I’m going to get things in line, this is how we’re going to do this,’ I think we could get seven votes in council to keep these engines open,” he said. “To me it’s kicking the can down the road and letting the next administration worry about this, and to me that’s poor management.”

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