Option Independent fire company opposes Baldwin merger plan
Action can be taken now to begin joint training and purchasing of equipment among Baldwin Borough's three fire companies, while more details surrounding a plan to consolidate fire services are hashed out.
“There's no reason why the training and working together can't start now,” borough Manager John Barrett said Tuesday. “We can do these efficiency things now without having to close stations.”
It was a packed house at the Baldwin municipal complex Aug. 14, as residents and firefighters came out to ask questions and hear from local officials about their plans surrounding the future of fire service in Baldwin Borough.
Tensions were high, as shouts came from the back of the room supporting both sides.
“I don't feel like all of the parties here have been (active participants), and when that's happening, I don't feel like I'm getting the whole story,” Michaelene Landy of Leona Drive said.
Baldwin Borough officials long have discussed a merger between the municipality's fire companies, they reiterated last week.
In recent months, borough leaders drafted a plan that would split the borough into two districts — north and south — with the dividing line nearly at the center of the community, solicitor Stanley Lederman said.
“In order to make this work in the most economical and the best possible way, as far as a safety standpoint, the proposal would be to build a new fire station — basically a new public-safety facility for Baldwin Borough — around Brownsville Road, in that area,” Lederman said. Both the South Baldwin and Option Independent fire companies would respond from these stations. A larger station would be built on Churchview for Baldwin Independent No. 1.
The facilities would have proper training rooms, space for outdoor training, office space inside for executive and fire sides, future sleeping quarters, rec and fitness rooms, and room for all of the public-safety agencies.
Leaders of both South Baldwin and Baldwin No. 1 expressed support for the plan presented by the borough's public-safety committee. Option Independent leaders, however, did not.
“Option is currently opposing it,” Option Independent Chief Jim Barbour said. “If we were left alone, if our station was left where it's at, we feel that we would be able to serve the borough of Baldwin better than (by) merging.”
Option Vice President Nancy Barylak presented borough council with a petition last week from more than 700 residents asking that the fire company remain open.
With the borough's public-safety committee's plan, there would be one chief overseeing all fire operations in Baldwin Borough who would report to emergency-management coordinator Ken Guerra, Lederman said. There would be two other chiefs, one overseeing the north division and one the south.
The plan would take a number of years to complete, Lederman said.
The plan would help support volunteers, borough leaders said.
“We can't get volunteers the way we (used to),” Guerra said. “Due to our society and the jobs and the way they're affected, it's extremely hard to attract young men and women to serve your community. They don't do it. And as a result, our biggest problem right now, is manpower of daylight calls. It's extremely bad, and it's not just unique to Baldwin Borough. It's happening all over the state, all over the country.”
A duplication of equipment also would be reduced, South Baldwin President Chad Hurka said. Plans are to go from 18 vehicles to eight.
The plan would not affect response times, borough officials said.
“We're still analyzing that, and believe me, we will do nothing that will endanger any homeowner,” Guerra said. “It's not one organization coming to your assistance.”
But cooperation is needed for the plan to work, said Joe Cambest, a 23-year member of South Baldwin and chief of eight years.
“At this time, Option is not willing to take part in these merger talks but are willing to merge with another fire company that has been closed by Baldwin Borough,” he said.
Baldwin officials last year filed a motion in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Court Orphan's Division seeking a distribution of the assets of the former Becks Run Fire Company to the borough's three other fire companies.
Becks Run leaders late last year also filed to merge with Option Independent, lawyers said.
The closure of Becks Run was prompted by accusations that officials stole from the Baldwin Borough Firefighters Relief Association.
“One of the things that I got dragged into was we had to arrest the chief and the deputy chief of the Becks Run Fire Company ...,” Baldwin Borough police Chief Michael Scott said. “Well, as a result of that, we started looking at fire service in its entirety, and one of the things that I saw when we were keeping statistics and getting the statistics about who was responding to fires were that a lot of times the company that was in the area that was closest was either not responding at all because they didn't have any manpower or they were maybe second, third or last.”
Vocal residents sought answers to questions such as “Where are the funds for this new building coming from?”
“It's not broke, so don't fix it,” said Matt Colaizzi of Young Drive.
Pam Bandi of Streets Run Road said she worried the strife that was visible between the fire companies only was hurting the situation.
“You're putting everybody against each other,” she said. “How can you possibly come up with a plan when you have firemen here with the looks on their faces like they're going to kill somebody? I think we all need to work together.”
Bandi suggested putting the issue on the ballot for a referendum.
A hearing in Common Pleas Court is set for Sept. 3 regarding the Becks Run assets. The results of that case likely will affect how borough officials proceed, Barrett said.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.