Fiery issue could reignite

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By JUDITH O. ETZEL
Contributing writer

The Oil City Fire Department is in the hot seat again as tight finances hinder how the city department can maintain its full strength in terms of manpower and machinery.

Two years ago, an ailing city budget and ongoing firefighters’ contract negotiations threatened to downsize the department. At stake were the potential loss of three full-time firefighters plus the closing of the North Side fire station, a move that would have left the city with the main fire station on the South Side’s Central Avenue.

The budget crunch was alleviated and the firefighter ranks remained intact. Both stations were kept open.

However, at least part of that scenario may again come to pass.

At a council meeting Thursday, Fire Chief Mark Hicks told council the department’s No. 2 engine was out of service. A rusted-out frame has made the 31-year-old engine “unrepairable, basically,” said Hicks. That leaves the department with two functioning engines and the tower truck.

Hicks laid out options for council to consider. A new replacement firetruck would cost the city about $348,000, said the chief.

A used fire engine from Emlenton Borough is available at a cost of $35,000, but it is a 1993 model that would have a limited life, he said.

“We could go down to the two engines and one tower (truck) that are now in service,” Hicks told council. “I’m more in favor of keeping manpower … than equipment.”

He added, “I’m asking council to take a look at the options and see what the direction is for the Oil City Fire Department.”

When Councilman Michael Poff asked Hicks what his recommendation would be, the chief answered he would “love a new fire engine” but cautioned the city will need to consider buying another firetruck within five to six years to replace an aging truck now in use.

“My belief – I’d like to get into one station. It’s a lot easier to have … people all in one place,” said Hicks, referring to shutting down the North Side station.

Noting the distance traveled to fire calls would meet insurance requirements should just one station be in operation, Hicks said the smaller North Side fire station had been deemed necessary years ago when train traffic was prolific in downtown Oil City and traffic delays were common.

“The North Side (station) is not needed,” he said. “I’d rather have the manpower. It’s the number one thing we need.”

Last month, Hicks told council his department needs another full-time firefighter to complement the currrent 13-member force. The department is short on part-time firefighters, too, he said.

Noting “this is not a good time” because area volunteer fire departments are facing manpower shortages, Hicks said, “I’d rather lose an engine than manpower.”

As Councilman Ron Gustafson asked Hicks if he “remembered the political firestorm last time” when the city was considering downsizing the fire department and closing the North Side facility, Hicks replied, “Yes. And it will come, now, too.”

Hicks continued, “I’m being a realist here. We can only afford so much. We have to make adjustments. … There are pros and cons to everything.”

The chief also noted the paid fire departments in Meadville, Titusville and Franklin each have one central fire station.

Council agreed to consider the options with a discussion to follow at a later date.

Donation to buy fire equipment

A donation was singled out for thanks at Thursday’s council meeting. Hicks said Sasol Chemicals, formerly Koppers and later Merisol, on Route 8 between Oil City and Rouseville has contributed $500 to the fire department for equipment purchases.