SHAMOKIN - City council took the first step towards permitting fire chiefs to reside outside Shamokin's borders, a move that spurred a city councilman to again call for consolidation with Coal Township.

A 3-1 vote Monday approved a preliminary amendment to existing ordinance that would allow chiefs of the Shamokin Fire Bureau to reside in Coal Township. It would also establish an application process for the chiefs positions, eliminating the current rotation format among the six fire companies.

If a second vote passes, perhaps as soon as next month, the amendment would be finalized.

Council members in favor were R. Craig Rhoades, who pushed for the changes, Barbara Moyer and Charlie Verano. Mayor William D. Milbrand was opposed. Councilman David Kinder was absent and is recovering from a heart attack.

Without the amendment, the ordinance restricts all candidates for fire chief only to bureau members who reside in Shamokin. It is more restrictive than what's in place for the city's police officers. As part of the latest collective bargaining agreement, police officers are allowed to live within a 10-mile radius of Shamokin.

Robert Wolfe is the current fire chief and is in the second year of a two-year term. John Klembara is the assistant chief, Jason Zimmerman the deputy chief and Bruce Rogers the battalion chief - all two-year posts.

Under the proposed ordinance, nominees who apply to become a chief must be vetted and approved by the Shamokin Fire Bureau before being recommended to city council, which would make the final decision. If approved, they would still be required to begin as a battalion chief and work up the ladder to become fire chief.

Manpower struggles

The all-volunteer Shamokin Fire Bureau is struggling with manpower, Rhoades said, particularly in the daytime. Citing Monday morning's three-alarm fire in the 100 block of South Vine Street, he credited the firefighters who responded and extinguished the blaze. But he said it was challenging for fire departments to get crews to the scene at 9:25 a.m. when many members are working. Recruiting new members is increasingly difficult, too.

Rhoades said the challenges are the same for neighboring communities, too, including in Coal Township. He said the proposed ordinance is a move towards consolidation of the city fire bureau, which he took even further by saying Shamokin and Coal Township should unite its fire departments, police departments and municipal governments.

"I think we need to look at the consolidation of our twin communities, Shamokin and Coal Township," Rhoades said, repeating an idea he's lobbied for several times before.

Milbrand opposed the change in ordinance, saying city council must find ways to recruit people to live in Shamokin, not leave.

"We're a council sitting here in City Hall worrying about where we're going to get our next tax dollars from to try and make the city survive. I don't think we should be giving an opportunity for anyone to move out of this city if they want to be a part of this city government and be paid by this city government. That's my stand," Milbrand said.

Verano said simply that "I believe it's time for a change."

Merger already

A merger within the Shamokin Fire Bureau is on track. The Liberty and Rescue fire companies are operating jointly out of the Rescue building at Liberty and Lincoln streets.

Members of Liberty began operating out of the Rescue on Sept. 1, 2013, moving their vehicles and equipment three blocks south.

Rhoades said crew members from both stations are cross-trained on each other's apparatus and that they're "happy with the merger." It's unclear if the move will affect the companies' names and leadership.

That leaves the city with Liberty's former quarters on Sunbury Street. It was the lone fire company to operate on a 99-year lease when all five other fire companies purchased their buildings for $1. Liberty's members paid for property insurance and maintenance. City council will look to sell the building.