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Recent fire reminder of what’s at stake EDWARD LEWIS OPINION

I heard the echoes of my wife’s voice when a multi-alarm fire erupted at the vacant Murray Complex last Sunday.

She warned me years ago about leaving our house with our three young kids to chase a story.

Not just any story, but a story that was breaking near our home involving a police pursuit with a garbage truck with shots fired.

My wife, a respiratory therapist who works extended hours on the graveyard shift at a hospital, heard about the pursuit and called the house warning me not to take our kids.

My reporter instinct told me to throw the kids in the car and catch up to the pursuit.

But the higher power overruled me. I reluctantly listened to the events unfold on my scanner.

My wife was sleeping Sunday afternoon after working a long shift.

After receiving a phone call alerting me about the blaze, I stood on my rear deck and saw the black smoke rising above the thick tree line.

Our home is nestled on the outskirts of woods in a very quiet borough about six miles away from the Murray Complex.

Nothing happens in my town, and I hope it stays that way.

With my wife sleeping and my kids running in and out of the house, I grasped the idea of taking the kids to the fire.

How would she know?

I quickly deflated the idea because my kids would rat me out in a heartbeat.

Later in the afternoon, my son and I stood outside the Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza with about 1,200 people waiting to be let in to see the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in an exhibition hockey game.

A water main break kept the arena from opening on time.

I stood there watching the black smoke from the Murray Complex fire choke the Wyoming Valley.

My reporter instinct kicked in to leave the arena and go to the fire. But I knew my son would rat me out too.

I did get to the fire the next day.

When the moments count

It was still burning as Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Inspector Bill Sharksnas was up in a aerial ladder truck looking down on the debris. Sharksnas would declare that the fire was intentionally set.

Pictures of the fire were quickly posted on a few Web sites dedicated to firefighters. There is one picture that stands out showing a firefighter emerging from the thick, gray smoke carrying an ax.

It’s a model picture for what a firefighter really is, a hero.

According to the city’s 2009 budget, the fire department is staffed with 73 men and women. Ten years ago, there were 82 firefighters in the city.

When there were more firefighters, there were 17 firefighters per shift.

Now there are 14 firefighters per shift protecting the city’s 7 square miles and approximately 43,000 citizens, not to mention the out-of-towners like me who work and drive in Wilkes-Barre.

With a fire, minutes and seconds are critical. The first eight minutes of a fire are the most important as firefighters must respond and conduct numerous tasks such as search and rescue, ventilation and supplying water, not to mention on deciding what kind of strategy to use in battling a blaze.

Having a properly staffed fire department is essential to handling the unique challenges, hazards and density in the city.

Maybe this should be an echo for city leaders to restore staffing within the fire department.

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