U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta Visits

DALLAS — Nobody wants to think about what would happen if a fire broke out and not enough emergency responders showed up to battle the blaze.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta heard some startling statistics Friday afternoon when he toured the Back Mountain Regional Fire & EMS station in Dallas. Fire Chief Harry Vivian said he used to see 20 to 30 volunteers respond to fires in the Back Mountain area. Now, the chief said he’s lucky if 10 show up usually it’s less.

That’s a shocking revelation when you consider the Back Mountain Regional Fire & EMS responds to 400 fire calls per year and more than 3,000 EMS calls.

“Sometimes, we take fire fighters and emergency responders for granted, until there’s a fire and not enough people show up to fight it,” Barletta said. That’s a scary thought, and Barletta said he is seeing this trend in declining volunteer fire fighters throughout his district and across the state. “The decline is not unique to Northeastern Pennsylvania,” Barletta said. “It’s happening in town after town in Pennsylvania.” Chief Vivian said not many are knocking on his door to sign up to become a volunteer firefighter.

“Social times are changing,” he said. “People have to work two jobs and most families have both parents working. Add to that all of the activities that kids are involved with today, like sports, and there isn’t much time left for volunteering.” The decline in volunteers resulted in the Dallas and Lehman fire companies merging to form the Back Mountain Regional unit. Back Mountain Regional Chief Chris Good said there are 10 full-time employees and 20 part-timers in the unit. Volunteers are still vital to the operation. Barletta said some 97 percent of fire companies in Pennsylvania are volunteer-dependent.

Chief Good said the Back Mountain Regional unit has a coverage area of 120 square miles. The more volunteers there are throughout that area, the better the odds of getting to a fire in time to begin fighting the blaze or, more importantly, to save lives.

Barletta knows the challenges. He said his time as mayor of Hazleton taught him the needs of municipalities. That’s why he has fought for more federal funding for fire departments and why he continues to fight to protect fire companies from having to bear the burden of the high cost of insurance for volunteers. Barletta had his eyes open to a real issue facing many towns throughout his 11th Congressional District during Friday’s tour. He later stopped at a few Back Mountain businesses to talk to the owners and their customers about their needs and concerns.

It’s time well spent for an elected official — getting out into the district he or she represents and listening to the people.

That’s how a congressman learns what needs to be fought for in Washington, D.C.Sometimes, these stops have small rewards. Dawn Pruden was at the Back Mountain Regional Fire & EMS station with her husband, Albert. The Prudens live in Lehman Township, but are former employees of the Fire Department of New York City.

Albert was in Tower 7 on 9/11 when it collapsed, Dawn said. He got out, but not without long-term health issues. She said Barletta helped Albert get the benefits he deserved.

Showing their appreciation, the Prudens presented Barletta with a patch from the uniform of the FDNY. Barletta thanked the Prudens and said that’s why he does the Main Street Tours. He said it’s the best way to get a feel for what’s needed in the municipalities he represents.

Public safety is always a Main Street concern. Barletta, Chief Vivian and Chief Good urge people to consider getting involved as volunteers.The Main Street Tours that Barletta has done — some 22 so far — have helped the congressman identify what is going on in his district and with his constituents. The real challenge is finding a way to get the necessary funding to address those concerns.

Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.