by: Lou Angeli
WILMINGTON, DE (January 21, 2013) -- Nearly 4 years ago, the citizens of Wilmington, DE lost vital fire protection to a fancy sounding concept known as Rolling Bypass, the city's term for brownouts. Since 2009 one of three engines companies (the department operates six) has been closed for 24 hours leaving five engine companies to serve the city of 90,000 (daytime). Response times increased somewhat, especially in neighborhoods which are home to those bypass companies.
"No other cuts would be needed" Mayor Jim Baker claimed. But less than 2 years later, the mayor and his staff demanded more cuts from Fire Chief Willie J Patrick. But this time the target was the State of Delaware's only career-staffed Heavy Rescue Squad. Despite the pleas of fire officers, firefighters, mutual aid departments and citizens, Chief Patrick moved ahead and disbanded Rescue-1, two years ago.
Seventeen firefighters were lost as part of that closure, and one of the state's most valued fire-rescue resources vanished. Net loss: 8 firefighters per shift and with it the inability to effectively handle multi-alarm tickets.
Jim Baker will not go down as Wilmington's most popular mayor. Under his administration one of America's oldest cities, just 30 miles south of Philadelphia, became the nation's most dangerous city. With the gang and drug problem going unchecked, Wilmington was unable to retain some of the prized multi national corporations which had located there in the 90's. Even worse, those firms left town at a time when the economy was at its worst since the Great Depression.
2012 was Jim Baker's last year in office, after having served the city for three straight terms for a total of 12 years. And in the summer, as primary elections drew near, Baker disappeared from sight. Fire department company officers approached the administration noting that there were inadequate personnel being assigned the search and rescue task at fires. Back when Rescue 1 was still rolling the streets, 6 firefighters were assigned to look for trapped victims. Now, with 2 companies down, only 2 firefighters were available to make their way through a house or structure to retrieve victims.The mayor didn't respond.
Even when national media attention turned toward the city's super high crime stats and unprecedented murder spree, the Mayor was no where to be found. Easy to find were 6 or 7 Democrats who were battling in the streets to become the party's candidate in November.
Amazingly, most of the candidates ran on a platform that could easily have been designed by Baker himself. Included were less city provided services, fewer cops and firemen, additional taxes, increased water fees as well as other unpopular fixes that the administration claimed would make the city more fiscally responsible. In the meantime, gun battles became a part of neighborhood life and firefighters were taking a beating on working blazes.
Unbelievably, only one candidate emerged whose campaign was based on the safety and welfare of Wilmington's citizens -- that of Dennis P. Williams. A former city police officer, Williams represented State District 1 in north Wilmington and served as the leader of the Joint Finance Committee. Wow -- a candidate who knew the city, its people, and who was well aware of where the state kept its money.
When I interviewed Rep. Williams this past spring, we discussed problems related to fire-rescue at length.
"The day I become mayor,' he insisted, 'I'll order the fire chief to end this rolling bypass nonsense immediately."
When asked about Rescue-1 he was just as insistent.
"Closing Rescue-1 makes no sense at all to me...it's like telling the police department to disband their SWAT unit." He continued. "Since Rescue-1 is an important state resource, my plan is to approach the state to see if we can re-open that company."
Those who ran against Williams claimed that he would be unable to keep such lofty promises. Of course, they offered no alternatives except to ignore the problems faced by police and firefighters. When primary day arrived, Rep. Williams and "his" firefighters beat the streets, visiting nearly every polling place...every section of the city.
Williams told me at my own polling place "...the quality of life issue needed to be addressed first. Once the streets are cleaned up, then my administration will invite new corporations to locate in a new, revitalized Wilmington."
Dennis P. Williams won the primary and the general election. And he's been preparing for office ever since.
A few weeks ago, Dennis Williams was sworn-in as Mayor of Wilmington. His appointee for Fire Chief, former Battalion Chief Anthony Goode, was sworn in several hours later. During Chief Goode's speech before a packed City Council chambers, he announced that Rolling Bypass had been discontinued, and that all companies were open for business. After a standing ovation, Mayor Williams pointed to me from across the room and mouthed "I told you!"
On his first day in office, before he broke for lunch, the new Mayor made good on a promise he made to the city's firefighters.
"You were with me from the beginning." the Mayor said this afternoon. "I am not going to lay public safety off. We'll find another way. And I will stay true to that commitment."
So far Mr. Mayor, you're batting a thousand and you're just now stepping out of the dugout. Imagine what will happen when he finally steps up to bat.
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