Carbondale, PA, City Council Votes to Privatize Fire Department

May 8, 2024
Concerned about the quality of the new hires, Carbondale firefighters say they're worried about their safety.


The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.


CARBONDALE — City firefighters opposed a decision Thursday night to outsource Carbondale’s paid firefighters to a staffing agency while city officials asserted the current system is unsustainable.

City council voted 5-2 during Thursday’s special meeting to enter into an agreement with the nonprofit Cottage Ambulance Foundation to provide Carbondale with an anticipated eight full-time and two part-time paid firefighters, although the foundation still has to vote to approve its end of the agreement Tuesday.

Carbondale had a peak of seven paid firefighters in recent years, though it is now down to four. All four will retire after training the Cottage firefighters, with three of the four taking early retirements offered by the city. Council President Joseph Marzzacco, Vice President John Masco Jr. and Councilmen Joseph Connor, Dominick Famularo and Jerry Arnese voted in favor of the agreement. Councilmen Walter Martzen and Thomas Voglino voted against it.

The Cottage Ambulance Foundation did not have a representative present at the meeting.

Unlike other towns in Lackawanna County, Carbondale uses both paid and volunteer firefighters. The city pays the drivers of its fire apparatus stationed at the Carbondale Fire Bureau next to City Hall at South Main Street and Sixth Avenue, and volunteer firefighters supplement the paid drivers when responding to emergencies.

The Cottage Ambulance Foundation is an affiliate of the Cottage Hose Ambulance Corp. Inc. in Carbondale, according to its Form 990 tax exempt filings as a 501©(3) nonprofit organization. The foundation provides ambulance services to Carbondale, Carbondale Twp. and Fell Twp., as well as surrounding areas in Lackawanna, Susquehanna and Wayne counties, according to its filings.

Under the terms of the one-year agreement, which will automatically renew annually unless it is terminated, Cottage would provide at least two firefighters 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Carbondale’s responsibilities include providing all equipment and vehicles necessary for the job and paying Cottage for the firefighters and their benefits. Carbondale would approve all firefighters before they work their first shifts, but Cottage has the sole ability to hire, discipline and terminate personnel. The firefighters would earn $25 per hour.

The current paid firefighters are unionized under the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1095; the staffing agency firefighters will not be in a union.

‘Directly affects our safety’

Just over two dozen Carbondale residents and firefighters attended Thursday’s meeting, about a quarter of whom addressed city officials to either pose questions or concerns about the agreement.

Carbondale is still the owner of the Fire Department, Marzzacco said.

“The reason that it was done to begin with was the present system was unsustainable,” the council president said. “The expenses were going up every year.”

The city was unable to find anyone to work the jobs, and the remaining paid firefighters “had tremendous amounts of overtime,” Marzzacco said.

While officials project some initial savings, “the real savings is going to come down the road as we cap off our pension plan, and we cap off health insurance coverage under our old plans and those disappear,” finance Director Tom Rainey said.

Mike McHale, a firefighter of 23 years in Carbondale who worked as a paid driver for six years before leaving in 2021 and returning as a volunteer, criticized the city for not having the firefighters involved in the process, notably regarding job requirements.

“We were concerned that you were going to hire people that didn’t have enough experience and didn’t have enough training, and that directly affects our safety as the people who are going into burning buildings in this city,” McHale said.

Mayor Michele Bannon said initiating the contract was a starting point, and it can be amended. Once Cottage approves its side of the agreement, the city will bring its volunteers together to sit down with Cottage and discuss it.

Volunteer firefighter John Brennan Jr., who has been with Carbondale for 23 years, questioned why the city did not put the agreement out to bid.

“If you want to save money for the taxpayers, which is why you guys are all up there, provide the best service for the lowest cost, why don’t we bid this out?” Brennan said.

The staffing is a professional service and exempt from bidding requirements, Bannon said. The city is also under time constraints, Marzzacco said.

Dickson City resident Joe “Chooch” Chowanec, a part-time paid driver in Carbondale, said he was the first part-time firefighter hired in the city more than 19 years ago. Like McHale, he worried about the quality of the new hires.

“I protect these guys that are sitting here — I expect them to protect me,” Chowanec said. “This isn’t a game of, ‘Let’s just put people in trucks and have them drive there.’ What happens when that first guy freezes when the flames are coming out the front window?”

‘We can work things out’

Speaking after the meeting, Bannon said their utmost concern is that the residents are safe, and that the volunteers who protect the residents are safe.

“We can talk about anything, and we can work things out because, ultimately, their goal is the same as mine: to provide fire safety to the city of Carbondale,” she said.

If the agreement does not pan out, Bannon said the city has the option to revert back to employing its own unionized firefighters again.

She did not yet have a timeline as to when the new firefighters would begin working for the city.

Fire Chief John Chervanka, who spent 30-plus years as a volunteer firefighter in Carbondale before becoming chief in January, said his four remaining paid firefighters are working 36-hour shifts, which is “completely unsustainable.” However, he also has concerns about the agreement.

Carbondale’s system worked very well for years, he said. In addition to its paid drivers, there are about 10 to 15 volunteer firefighters who routinely respond to calls, he said.

“My concern is a staffing company, and again, it’s not a knock to them at all,” he said. “Could we get the same level that we have? Is it going to get the savings that we hope to get?”

Chervanka noted the looming loss in experience when his four remaining paid firefighters retire. To be eligible for retirement, the firefighters had to have at least 20 years of service.

“When you get that senior person to guide you into a scene or rely on their wisdom, you can’t put a price on that at all,” he said. “We don’t know who we’re going to get in. When you have a bunch of essentially rookies — rookies to the Carbondale Fire Department — that’s a concern.”

Despite his concerns, Chervanka believes the department will persevere through training and diligence.

“We’re firemen,” he said. “We inherit other people’s problems. I’m sure we’ll get through.”


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