Members of the Union Fire Co. were expected to vote behind closed doors Wednesday night, after an impassioned public meeting, on a settlement with the township that would allow the volunteer agency to resume operations.
But given the requirement previously stated by township Public Safety Director Fred Harran that the company change its leadership and membership's obvious objection to that, there may be little reason to think an agreement is near.
“We're still a ways apart,” Union Fire Co. President Steve Carmichael said after Tuesday's public meeting.
Meanwhile, the company may seek an injunction Wednesday aimed at lifting its suspension of operations, and the township plans its own public meeting on the issue Wednesday night.
Carmichael presided over a meeting in the bays of the firehouse on State Road attended by about 80 people including company members. Also in attendance was Harran, who was shouted at by several nearby residents upset at his decision, announced Monday, to suspend the operations of their local fire company. He previously said that was done because of Union's failure to follow administrative and operational directions from the township on many occasions over the past 12-18 months.
Several residents said they feared for their safety.
“What's the matter with you?! Lucille Sobczak asked Harran. “These are our homes that we've worked all our lives to have!”
Another man said, “Every day this firehouse is shut down it's a tragedy, and shame on the mayor or anyone else who shut this down.”
Yet another male resident said, “They're jeopardizing my home. They're jeopardizing my life.”
Harran repeated that the suspension would not affect public safety. He previously said other companies had been assigned to take over the area.
Harran said this week that the chiefs of the five other volunteer fire companies agreed with his decision to suspend Union's operation. Carmichael said Tuesday night that he was disappointed with their lack of support but understood.
“They're looking out for their own organizations,” he said.
Fire Chief Vince Troisi, who did not speak during the meeting, said afterward that two of those five chiefs are township employees.
Tuesday's meeting lasted more than an hour. Well into that time Carmichael revealed that he and township officials had been working on a possible settlement that would be voted on later in the evening. Earlier he said Harran had told him that both he and Troisi would have to step down, and that both had offered to resign this week.
“What did you say gentlemen?" Carmichael asked.
“No!” shouted back company members.
Initially asked by a resident why the company was suspended, Carmichael said, “The actions taken Monday were as shocking to us as they were to you.” There were some disagreements being worked on with the township, he said, “but I thought this particular action was a little over the top.”
The longtime president said, as far as he knows, there are three issues that were being discussed with the township that prompted the “unprecedented” suspension:
- The company's refusal to dismiss a member with a health issue after a lawyer told it such action could open it up to litigation
- A false accusation that the company refused to share water at an April 19 fire with the township's paid firefighters
- Two members going against protocol by responding to fires without two more firefighters on the truck
Carmichael said both men are no longer with the company. Troisi said one resigned about two months ago and the other was dismissed a few weeks ago. He acknowledged that those men seemed to trying to prove that they could beat the township's full-time firefighters to calls.
Nonetheless, Carmichael said the current situation is not the result of bad blood between his company and the township's paid firefighters.
“I'm glad we have them to back us up during the day,” he said.
Carmichael said the township has refused to provide the company with the results of a police probe into any possible wrongdoing at the April 19 fire scene. And Harran told Patch the township does not believe such investigative reports are subject to Right to Know laws.
Carmichael said the company plans to submit another request for that report Wednesday morning.
In response to a question from the audience, Carmichael also said he feels there are grudges involved in the situation.
“In the last four or five years, some people have left the company and have a grudge. They have an ax to grind,” he said.
Carmichael did not mention that Troisi testified in 2009 on behalf of former township police officer Perry Ferrara when he unsuccessfully sued the township for demoting him. Troisi did acknowledge that Ferrara is a grant writer for the Union Fire Co.
Harran has characterized the claims of personal grudges on his part as “ridiculous.”
Carmichael also claimed the township has rejected business models from the company aimed at making Union financially self-sustaining in three to five years. He said after the meeting that the township provided the company with $172,000 this year.
Harran claimed the company has failed to show the township that it can get the funds to sustain itself.
The meeting first became heated when a woman questioned why so many Union members don't live in the township, something Carmichael acknowledged at the start of the meeting.
“I don't live here. I live in Croydon,” he said. “But I think all people should care about is that when you call 9-1-1 someone shows up on the truck.”
One man responded to the woman by saying, “People don't volunteer. These guys are volunteering to put their lives on the line.”
Carmichael seemed particularly upset with a comment made by Harran to Patch this week that any Union member who crosses a fire line would be arrested.
“I'll risk personal arrest to get down here and do what I can,” he said, prompting the crowd to clap.
Asked by a resident exactly what is needed to reopen the firehouse, Harran said he could not publicly say because township and fire company lawyers are involved.
“They know what has to has to be done,” he said in a reference to the company leaders. “I'm convinced they'll be operational shortly.”
Asked by Patch to clarify that second sentence, Harran said, “If we come to an agreement. You have to add that.”
Harran said the township is “eager to get the fire station operational again” and would offer more answers at a meeting 7 p.m. Wednesday at Pen Ryn Mansion on State Road.
The Union Fire Co. started operations in 1928. Troisi said it has 44 members, with 14 being added just this week. Carmichael said about 30 members would be voting on the proposed settlement.
At posting time, around midnight, he had not provided the outcome of the vote.