The tragedy on East Madison Street points up that it's high time for the city and its firefighters' union -- both -- to do the right things in order to serve citizens.
Even after a fire that claimed two lives and left three firefighters injured, Lancaster city officials and leaders of the firefighters' union can't stop firing away at each other.
Oh, they did it gently in a story in last week's Sunday News -- for a change.
"We knew it was going to happen sooner or later," one unnamed firefighter said. "One of those perfect-storm type of calls was going to come in."
Countered Mayor Rick Gray: "We don't think we're utilizing our people as effectively and as positively as we can. And to that extent, I think we could utilize them better for their own safety and for the public's safety."
So the firefight continues.
For too long, the city and the union have been battling over staffing, hours, equipment, pay, pensions and Chief Tim Gregg, among other flash points. There's a perception that the police bureau has gotten better treatment, dating to the administration of Mayor Charlie Smithgall, while the firefighters have seen their numbers shrink.
Both sides have legitimate concerns. As the Feb. 18 fatal fire on East Madison Street demonstrates, and as firefighters have been arguing, Lancaster does not appear to have sufficient manpower to fight a serious blaze.
But the Gray administration has a point, too. Public safety costs are stretching the city's budget to the breaking point. And with state law allowing police and fire unions to take contract disputes to arbitration, management too often ends up eating salary and benefit figures awarded by an arbitrator who demonstrates little care for what taxpayers can afford.
Perhaps the tragedy on East Madison Street will shake each side out of entrenched positions.
Pauline Stone, 39, and the child she was baby-sitting, Leilani Roman, 6, died in the inferno that consumed Ms. Stone's home -- a fire probably of electrical origin.
Firefighters quoted in the Sunday News story can't say they might have saved Ms. Stone and Leilani if they'd had more responders or if they had a ladder truck on the east side of the city instead of the west side. They said they would have had a better chance, though.
And they argue that Lt. Andre Kelley and two other firefighters might not have been hurt, or hurt as seriously, if they'd had more help at the scene.
Lt. Kelley, who was badly burned while trying to rescue Ms. Stone and Leilani, is recovering at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in suburban Philadelphia.
City officials contend that more staffing could be available if the union would agree to a long-sought schedule change. But the union has resisted the switch.
We can't say for sure who's right in this dispute. We agree the city can't balance the budget with benefit costs soaring from 34 percent of the fire budget to 46 percent over the last eight years. And we suspect Lancastrians can't be safe with 12 firefighters for every 10,000 people in the city -- a lower ratio than Bethlehem, Altoona or York.
We do know that the distrust and bitterness that have marked labor relations between the city and its firefighters' union are blocking any possibility of bridging the gap between what the union says it needs and what Lancaster can afford.
And we do know that the battle between the city and the union isn't accomplishing anything except deepening those entrenched positions. You know the popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result the next time.
In the wake of the East Madison Street fire, that situation may be changing. Contract talks are ongoing, and it appears both sides may be willing to try to mend broken relations.
We hope so. Perhaps this could be a memorial to the two lives lost in that Feb. 18 fire.
Memo to the union and the city: Stop fighting fire with fire.n