Jefferson Hills leaders consider merging fire companies
There was a clear divide between firefighters and borough council members, alike.
The feasibility study that outlined a possible consolidation of fire services in Jefferson Hills had merit, some argued. It recommended one overseeing body for the borough's fire companies, uniform training and, in the end, would save money, supporters said.
Yet the report's recommendation to close Floreffe Volunteer Fire Hall, one of the borough's three volunteer fire companies, was met with opposition. Closing a more than 70-year-old volunteer fire company in a growing municipality could lead to longer response times and a loss of identity, opponents argued.
By the end of a more than 3.5-hour borough council meeting Wednesday night, a majority of council members agreed they would be OK with a fire service that had one governing body, yet three stations. Councilwoman Kathleen Reynolds voiced opposition.
At the recommendation of residents, council members also said they would explore the idea of creating a task force to review the future of fire service in the borough.
“Currently, as it stands, I have a huge concern for the residents,” said Councilman Tracey Khalil, who questioned if firefighters at Floreffe are receiving proper training and raised concerns that they're training alongside their fellow Jefferson Hills firefighters. “It's a recipe for disaster.”
Council members said they have spent two years trying to determine how to provide the best fire service for Jefferson Hills. A peer consultant and executive fire officer with the Department of Community and Economic Development's Governor's Center for Local Government Services conducted a feasibility study that was finalized in June.
The study, posted this month on the borough's website, recommends the closure of Floreffe Volunteer Fire Company and contracting with nearby Elrama Volunteer Fire Company in Washington, County for services in that area. It also recommended relocating the Jefferson Hills 885 Fire Company to the former Large Volunteer Fire Department, and keeping the Gill Hall Volunteer Fire Company station.
Council members said members of Jefferson 885 Volunteer Fire Company support the plan, while they've found opposition at Gill Hall and Floreffe. About 70 percent of the fire calls in the last three years occurred in the Jefferson 885 response area, while 23 percent came from Gill Hall's response area and 9 percent from Floreffe.
The idea of a closing Floreffe didn't sit well with some.
“The quicker fire company can get there, the safer it is for everyone,” said Bob Gulla, a member of Floreffe. “This is quite a large borough, spread out in a large area. You're going to increase the time it's going to take to get a fire engine to a call.”
In bad weather and traveling the borough's hills, Gulla said, it could be hard to get a fire truck to the Floreffe area if the station is closed.
“What if there's a fatality — someone's husband, wife, worse yet, someone's child,” he said. If council members voted to close a fire company and it led to responders not being able to arrive quickly enough to save someone's life, “I don't know if I could ever live with something like that if I made that decision,” Gulla said. “Don't vote with a cold heart.”
Council President Chris King said the decision doesn't come down to voting with your heart, it comes down to voting for what will keep the residents safe. He talked about the Memorial Day events at Floreffe fire hall, attending spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts there. But also raised concerns about firefighters showing up to calls who don't know how to work a pump.
“That's not acceptable and that's not safe,” King said.
Several firefighters spoke for the consolidation.
“This merger cannot be allowed to die at the hands of those who are afraid to lose their positions,” said Shawn Nowakowski, who served as a lieutenant with the Gill Hall fire company until resigning this month. At least one other firefighter from Gill Hall spoke at the meeting, saying he too left the fire company and joined Jefferson 885, in recent weeks.
If the borough fails to move forward with consolidating fire companies, Nowakowski said it better add a disclaimer to its “No. 1 place to raise a family” to add that's only the case “unless if your house is on fire.”
Councilman Francis Sockman said he has the philosophy that “when someone's down, you don't kick them. You pick them up.”
He noted that Floreffe firefighters have rallied in the last few weeks and are trying to make things better.
“I believe there's enough room in this community for three active volunteer fire departments,” Sockman said.
Jay Girman, treasurer at the Floreffe fire company, said the study got firefighters moving.
“The fire study did wake us up,” he said, noting four new members have joined in the last few weeks.
Councilwoman Vickie Ielase said she would like to see council members use the study as a tool to learn from. She asked everyone to take a step back, let the emotions cool down, and think about what's right for the borough.
“Tempers are running high. People need to take a step back, let this smolder a bit,” she said.
Amid accusations that council members were trying to sweep the issue under the rug and attacks that the issue has become personal, council vice president James Weber read a list of each meeting the issue has been discussed at — going all the way back to June, when the report was finished.
No matter the outcome, most importantly, he said is the borough needs standardization, uniform training and rules and regulations for its fire service.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.