Fire department merger a burning community issue
'If this goes through, how many of you will no longer be volunteer firefighters after Jan. 31?' JoAnne Saula, wife of the West Wilmerding fire company president, asked those packed into the chambers of the North Versailles Township commissioners.
At least two dozen hands went up at that point, backed with vocal support as well.
Last month, council voted 6-0 to combine the last two independent fire companies of the original seven that were formed as far back as 1917. There was one abstention, that coming from township Commissioner Jesse Reed, a lifetime member of the West Wilmerding company who was advised by the township solicitor to abstain.
'I wouldn't have voted in favor of it,' Reed said after Thursday's meeting. 'But if I'm an active member then I'm not allowed to vote, because they say that's a conflict of interest.'
The commissioners will meet on Tuesday, when they will take another look at the December decision. After Thursday's session, the commission seemed unlikely to reverse their decision, Commissioner Edward McGuire said, adding he would have to confer with his fellow commissioners.
'Everybody's got to make a tough decision,' McGuire said. 'And I made a tough decision, just like the rest of this board.'
As for the future, McGuire explained that 'as of Jan. 31, if we don't rescind our decision before then, these two companies will still be in business. They're allowed to have a fire department. But they won't be getting money from the township. And they won't be part of the Fireman's Relief Fund.'
The township also would cease dispatching West Wilmerding and Crestas to emergencies, and quit paying workers' compensation and collision insurance premiums. The charter departments are already paying the rest of their insurance.
Crestas Fire Chief Bernard Furby disagrees with what he calls the 'merge or else' approach by township commissioners.
'The fundamental difference between what happened with the other fire companies and what they're doing with us is that they did it by choice,' Furby said. 'But they're telling us that we'll merge or we're out. We're willing to talk to them but this can't be done overnight.'
Despite the township's contention that volunteers are scarce, the firefighters from the affected stations turned out en masse on Thursday. Furby acknowledged that there have been staffing problems, including a call to a house fire during daylight hours in recent months when there were no volunteers available to respond to the alarm.
'But over the last six months, we're usually turning out 8-12 guys per fire,' Furby said, noting that there are 142 homes in their coverage district, while West Wilmerding handles about 600 homes.
Commissioner Victor Milko asked Saula if any regulations are in place governing firefighters drinking in the social club at the West Wilmerding Fire Hall and then going out on calls.
To that, several members of the crowd replied 'common sense,' although Saula admitted that there is no written policy. But he then produced records showing that the West Wilmerding club pays taxes, while the township's main station, Sunset Central, does not. McGuire explained that the West Wilmerding fire company pays taxes because it owns the building, while Sunset Central does not.
Asked by Crestas resident Romodore Abdullah what research went into the decision, McGuire said that the notion of merging departments in the township has been discussed for at least 20 years.
'People say this is a political move, but politics is the reason that nothing ever moved in all that time,' McGuire said. 'We're here to try to do something we thought was right - somebody has to make a move.'
Upon telling commissioners that West Wilmerding would never merge with the township, Saula said that after Thursday's meeting 'the ball is in their court. If we call on Jan. 31 and the township is not dispatching us, we'll go from there.'
Saula added that he is looking into the possibility of West Wilmerding purchasing its own collision insurance and workers' compensation - as well as seeing about dispatching services through Turtle Creek.
Some residents are still hoping for an amicable solution. Donald Price urged all sides to 'come together and talk things out - that's the best thing they can do. But these two departments should have been told about these plans.'
Price offered a hypothetical scenario, saying 'you can come to a house, put an eviction notice on the door and try to throw me out, and I'll kick and scream about it. But if you knock on my door and tell me I'm living over a mine, that's different.'
Tom Jewell can be reached at email@example.com or (412) 380-8516.