ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Members of Allentown City Council are concerned about ensuring public safety when PPL Center, the city's new multi-purpose arena, opens next month on Center Square.
Yet some expressed confidence Wednesday night that the city is prepared to handle any problems that opening might produce.
City Council unanimously approved hiring four new police officers, but council vice president Ray O'Connell said that is not enough.
"We need to get the full allotment of 216 cops on the streets in Allentown," declared O'Connell.
He said hiring the four officers will bring the city's police force up to 204.
"A lot of things are going to happen in September, October, November, December," said O'Connell. "Two hundred and four is not enough. We need more cops in Allentown. No doubt about it."
He said the mayor, police chief and other city officials are aware of that need, adding: "I'm not trying to browbeat you. I'm just saying we need to get them."
"We don't disagree," said Francis Dougherty, the city's managing director, speaking for the administration. "Rest assured the chief has all the resources we can possible give him to get these officers hired."
O'Connell said "believe it or not" it's hard for the city to hire qualified police officers.
"A lot of them fail background checks," agreed Dougherty.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald noted the city now can hire from other police departments and get those new hires out on the streets faster than those who must first go through police academy training, "but that doesn't seem to have helped us either."
Council member Daryl Hendricks, a retired city police captain, said: "It's a very difficult selection process and yet it's one that we do not want to cut any corners on. We have very high standards with the police department and, unfortunately, we have a lot of candidates who just don't fit the bill.
"And many of these are officers currently working in other [police] departments. They just fail to meet the standards that we're looking for."
Eichenwald asked if any of the four new officers are Allentown residents and was told they are not.
The four new police officers are David D. Clouser of Easton, Arthur G. Owens II of Bethlehem, Daniel P. Sullivan of Horsham, Montgomery County, and Gary J. Walsh of Northampton.
They will start as patrolmen, at a base annual salary of $50,192. Their appointments are contingent upon passing physical and psychological examinations.
City can handle arena events
While the city needs more police, during a meeting of council's public safety committee before the full council meeting, O'Connell dismissed as "baloney" suggestions that Allentown lacks the ability to handle arena events.
"This is a project in motion," he said. "This is going to be trial-and-error. Game time is Sept. 12."
A concert by the Eagles will be the first major event in the arena on Sept.12.
At the committee meeting, police, fire, EMS and communications officials briefed council on their preparations for the arena's opening.
O'Connell has full confidence that all of them "are on top of it. Time will tell. If something goes astray. You tweak it; you make it better."
"We're going to have some growing pains throughout the downtown area," agreed Hendricks.
"It's safe to say there's going to be some trial and error. We're going to make some mistakes and we're going to correct them. This is all new. I'm quite confident that, in the end, everything is going to work out just fine."
O'Connell, who serves as council's representative on the Allentown Parking Authority, said the city "unequivocally" has enough arena parking spaces: 3,800. He said parking authority staffers project that 2-2.5 people will be in each car.
The arena can hold 8,500 for hockey games and 10,000 for concerts.
"There will be plenty of parking spaces, but you may have to walk an extra block or two," he said.
O'Connell said the Allentown Parking Authority also is looking into the possibility of offering shuttles to get residents to the arena.
No action on parking meters
Plans by the parking authority that would require people to feed city parking meters until 9 p.m. daily have been shelved, perhaps indefinitely.
Those plans were first put before council in April by the parking authority, which intended to take them back to council for action in late May.
"Right now, meter parking ends at 6 o'clock," said O'Connell. "That will continue until further notice."
He added if the parking authority does bring back the proposal to extend feeding meters to 9 p.m., City Council still would have to vote on it.
Symphony Hall parking
Eichenwald, who chairs the public safety committee, expressed concern that the arena will rob patrons of Miller Symphony Hall of nearby parking.
She said arena events are scheduled on almost every night that events are scheduled in Symphony Hall, which is just one block away on North 6th Street.
Now people going to Symphony Hall can find nearby parking in a deck and on a lot on opposite corners of 6th and Linden streets.
Eichenwald said Symphony Hall's patrons tend to be older and some could have difficulty walking from several blocks away.
If a lack of nearby parking impacts attendance, Eichenwald is concerned that will jeopardize the future of Symphony Hall. She said officials at Symphony Hall are "exceedingly concerned."
Dean Schwartz, event operations manager at the parking authority, said Tamara Dolan, its executive director, is developing a plan to address that issue "to help Symphony Hall make their events successful," but that plan has not yet been completed.
EMS in arena?
Another issue of concern is whether Allentown EMS personnel will be stationed inside the arena during events.
Hendricks said he had heard if there is a need for EMS services inside the arena, that will be handled by Lehigh Valley Hospital.
"Is that factual?" he asked Brian Fritz, the city's EMS operations manager.
"I cannot say exactly what their plans are going to be for inside the building," said Fritz, adding he met with arena operators and they have his contact information but he has not heard from them.
"They have not contacted Allentown EMS to have a presence inside the building during events," said Fritz. "It's up to them to decide how they're going to handle things inside their building."
Hendricks said if any medical emergencies in the arena are going to be handled by Lehigh Valley Hospital, that's something Fritz should know.
Hendricks suggested Fritz find out.
"I will try to reach out to them and see what their plan is," said Fritz. "I will work to get you an answer."
Fritz said Lehigh Valley Hospital has at least two ambulances.
Hendricks said if there is an emergency inside the arena, the city is going to be responsible "and we need to be prepared for that."
Hendricks noted many more people will be in the downtown area, not only at the arena but also at restaurants and businesses.
"Obviously we'll need additional police officers on the street. More than likely, we're going to need additional EMS. There will be more calls. Some medicals issues will come up."
"I'm certainly not going to under-staff," said Fritz. "I'd rather be prepared."
Fritz said the city has two or three EMS paramedics at IronPigs minor league baseball games in east Allentown.
"So why aren't you in the arena?" asked O'Connell.
Hendricks said the arena is a larger venue than Coca-Cola Park, where the Iron Pigs play.
Other arena measures
Allentown Police Captain Glen Dorney said city police will work both inside and outside the arena during hockey games, concerts and other events, but those officers will be paid by the arena's management, not by the city
City Fire Chief Robert Kudlak, Jr., said firefighters will be in the arena – "at the hose stations and ready to go" -- whenever an event involves pyrotechnics.
He also said every event in the arena will be inspected by a fire marshal before it begins.
Kudlak said the arena's management also will pay for fire department staffing at its events.
The city has been working with arena management to make sure radios used by all city public safety personnel work everywhere inside the building.
Deficient areas are being eliminated, explained Michael Hilbert, the city's communications superintendent..
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