Jefferson Hills strips certification from Gill Hall VFC
Despite the protests of its members, Gill Hall Volunteer Fire Company has been cut off from municipal funds and no longer will receive dispatches from Allegheny County Emergency Services.
Citing flagging membership and a decline in quality of service, Jefferson Hills Borough Council voted Jan. 14 to drop the department as one of its certified fire companies.
The 71-year-old, 16-member department was not dissolved by the vote and still maintains ownership of its fire hall, truck and other equipment.
Council was split 5-2 on the decision, with members Vickie Ielase and Mary Reynolds dissenting.
“This whole subject is very emotional. It’s highly charged, and everybody is very passionate about their stations and fire protections in this community,” Councilman Tracy Khalil said.
“We’ll always welcome Gill Hall back into the fold. That’s the ultimate goal. Hopefully, that will happen,” he continued.
The department had been poised to consolidate with Jefferson 885 and Floreffe volunteer fire companies but pulled out of the merger process after nearly a year of discussions because of what Chief Calvin Felix called a lack of transparency on the part of the other departments.
Members of the other two departments and borough officials have said they never were given concrete reasons for Gill Hall’s withdrawal.
Last January, members from all three companies formed a task force to hammer out a new charter and bylaws for a singular organization following the conclusion of a borough-commissioned fire study, which originally recommended the Floreffe outfit be de-certified and the remaining companies combine.
Task force and council members have said the Gill Hall department grew uncooperative and unresponsive over the course of consolidation talks. In the intervening months, several members of the company left for Jefferson 885, saying the station had become more of a social club than a firehouse.
Felix said around $20,000 of the company’s $65,000 budget comes from the borough.
Members of council and the Gill Hall company argued during the Jan. 14 meeting, raising their voices at times. Reynolds walked out of the meeting shortly after the vote.
“This is not a merger. This is a takeover,” said Vincent Talarico, a member of the department.
Several Gill Hall members asserted during the meeting that council could be leaving homes under their ward at risk by de-certifying the company, a concern echoed by Mayor Jan Cmar. Chief Anthony Tomer, of Jefferson 885, and Council President Christopher King disputed the claim, saying the company had responded to fires shorthanded in the past and the community would be safer under the merger.
Service in Gill Hall’s jurisdiction falls now to the remaining certified departments within the borough and to the neighboring Pleasant Hills and Broughton volunteer fire companies.
Felix said the Gill Hall company has been working with an attorney and did not rule out the possibility of pursuing litigation. Gill Hall would consider consolidation, he said, if the members of all three companies put the matter to a vote.
Several council members expressed hope that the department would rejoin discussions with Jefferson 885 and Floreffe, which are still on track to consolidate and will continue to operate out of their respective stations. John Thatcher, who chaired the task force and will serve as the new department’s president, said the two could combine within the next two to three months.
Fire departments across Pennsylvania continue to hemorrhage members in what a recently released state legislative study called a “public safety crisis.” State staffing numbers have shrunk over the past four decades from around 300,000 to just 38,000 today, according to the study.
Matthew Guerry is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.