MERCERSBURG, Pa. — A Franklin County fire chief is blaming a bridge closure for delaying the fire company's response to a house fire.
"That bridge that PennDOT (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) decided to shut down on Rt. 16 made us take a detour and cost us at least 10 minutes in response. A fire doubles in size every two to four minutes," said Dusty Stoner, fire chief of Mercersburg Montgomery Peters and Warren Fire department.
To respond to Thursday's 12:24 a.m. house fire at 11496 Fisher Drive in Montgomery Township, Stoner said MMP&W crews followed the six-mile detour traveling on Pa. 416 south to Welsh Run to Welsh Run Road until returning to Pa. 16.
No injuries to the homeowners or firefighters were reported, Stoner said.
He said it appears that the fire started in the basement, but is being investigated by the Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal.
Mercersburg was assisted by St. Thomas, Greencastle, Waynesboro, Marion and units from Washington Co. and Fulton Co.
The bridge over the west branch of the Conococheague Creek between Mercersburg and Welsh Run closed on April 11 and will remain closed for seven months as construction crews replace the bridge superstructure.
With the bridge closed until November, Stoner is concerned about what the delays in response time will mean if another emergency arises.
"If I was a homeowner down that way, I'd be screaming. Now, the fire department can't get to me when they could of if there would have been better consideration or better planning for all this to take place. I know what PennDOT is going to say — they're going to say, 'We should have planned better.'
"Really, I can't drive if there aren't any roads," Stoner said.
Stoner said the call volume in the Montgomery Township area has been typically low over the years, and hopefully it will stay that way.
Pa. 16 has been a connector road between Mercersburg and Greencastle, but Stoner said the road has been a lifeline for emergency responders.
"If there's a fire in Mercersburg, we rely on people coming up from Greencastle and that way to help us, just like they rely on us to come that way to help them — now that's all changed because of the detour," Stoner said.
"I understand they (PennDOT) have a job to do, but I think sometimes there needs to be a little bit of a better working relationship," Stoner said.
Stoner said an engineer from PennDOT told him that the work could have been done one lane at a time but it would have cost twice the money.
"Yes, it would cost twice the money. But, being a taxpayer I would rather have the assurance of fire, EMS and police protection in a timely fashion than to save me money, and it cost me in the long run," Stoner said.
PennDOT spokesman Greg Penny said Stoner's complaint is not a new one, and the state has a backlog of structurally deficient bridges.
"We don't have the money to satisfy everybody. We really do have limited resources, and we have to figure out what is the best way to use those resources. In this case, we felt there was an adequate detour available," Penny said.
He said staged construction, in which traffic is alternated across the bridge one lane at a time, would have doubled the time for the bridgework and possibly doubled the cost.
"The argument from the fire chief when he said, 'when you close a bridge it could result in loss of property or the loss of life,' that's a possibility, but if you step back and look at the big picture — spending the additional money for staged construction could also deprive you of money to enable you to build the next bridge or repair the next bridge," Penny said.
The $865,451 bridge contract was awarded to George S. Hann & Son, Inc. of Fort Littleton, Pa. The existing two-span steel I-beam bridge, built in 1941, is classified as structurally deficient, according to a PennDOT press release.