On Monday, the township took what is believed to be a first-ever step in suspending the operations of a volunteer fire company.
On Wednesday, township Public Safety Director Fred Harran revealed he had taken another unprecedented move in demanding the independently chartered Union Fire Co. install his choice for a new chief if it wants to resume operation.
Members of Union made it clear they wouldn't accept that choice, and at the end of a second straight night of contentious public debate, Harran agreed to listen to other suggestions for replacing Fire Chief Vince Troisi.
“We want this to work,” Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo said in front of a crowd of more than 100 people at special meeting held by the township at Pen Ryn Mansion. The crowd largely expressed support for the fire company, fear for its safety and criticism of the township's action.
The meeting followed Monday's announcement that the township had suspended Union's operations for failure to follow township directives over an 18-month period. It also followed a public meeting held by the Union Fire Co. on Tuesday night, at which time it was divulged the township and fire company were working on a settlement to lift the suspension.
Midway through Wednesday's 90-minute session, one of many concerned residents asked Harran what the fire company needed to do to get the suspension lifted. Harran, who refused to answer that question the night before, said Union must replace Chief Troisi and Deputy Chief James Barford; install Ray Hackman as the new chief; and agree to a mayor-appointed board to oversee its operations.
After the meeting, he indicated that Barford's removal was not essential.
Asked by residents about his choice of Hackman, Harran said he has known him a long time and he is a “reasonable man” whom he believes would work well with the township.
“They're asking us for a split-second decision with no time to prepare for an orderly transition,” longtime Union President Steve Carmichael told the crowd.
Later in the meeting Carmichael and some of his members made it clear they do not support the choice of Hackman, a 16-year member of Union and coordinator of the county hazmat team.
“I don't want one individual shoved down my guys' throats,” said Carmichael.
“We don't want Ray Hackman. We have no confidence in that gentleman. None,” said Edward Bomentre, who revealed himself as the Union member the township wants dismissed because of a health issue that allegedly makes him unfit for firefighting.
“You can't put in a chief they're not willing to follow,” said a female resident.
Saying he really didn't want to do it, Harran began the meeting with a laundry list of 18 reasons he suspended Union operations including its refusal to dismiss Bomentre.
He repeated that he believes Union members delayed sharing water with the township's paid firefighters at an April fire, and responded to some fires with too few men. Carmichael has denied the water-sharing claim, blaming a failed hydrant. He repeated Wednesday that the two firefighters who were responding to fires without more men no longer work for the company.
Harran also said Union firefighters were guilty of unsafe maneuvers at fire scenes. His other reasons included:
- Failing to provide the township with members' names for background checks
- Troisi's failure to attend chiefs meetings since February 2010
- Blogging online about safety-related information discussed at a commanders meeting
“It's not about Fred Harran,” the public safety director repeated. “I have five other (volunteer) chiefs who signed off and agreed to the suspension.”
Two of those chiefs work for the township, Troisi said Tuesday. And volunteer companies rely on township funding.
Mike Mattoi, former president of the Cornwells Fire Co, offered his support of Union.
“It's a disgrace what's going on. I never once had a problem working with Chief Troisi or his men,” he said.
Later, Carmichael could be heard asking Mattoi if he would take a leadership position with Union, and Mattoi said yes.
Carmichael also claimed that some of Harran's concerns had been addressed but the township had failed to provide the company with a full list. He said Troisi missed the meetings because of night work but a delegate had been sent in his place.
Carmichael also told the crowd it had decided not to seek a court injunction against the township earlier in the day because neither the company nor township residents can afford a lawsuit.
The crowd made it clear it didn't like what it was hearing from Harran.
“There's a tug of war between you and them and we're the ones suffering,” said nearby resident Michele Recupido.
“It's not a tug of war,” replied Harran. “We don't take votes. We're a paramilitary organization.”
Harran repeated that the township has ensured the area's safety by assigning other fire companies to the area.
“You are safe tonight if not safer than you were a week ago,” he said, soon adding that Union firefighters had “put lives in jeopardy.”
But many residents said that didn't quell their fears.
In the end, besieged by residents' criticism and suggestions, Harran invited Carmichael to immediately resume negotiations and offer him more choices for chief, and Carmichael agreed.
Troisi did not attend Wednesday's meeting. He testified in 2009 on behalf of former township police officer Perry Ferrara when he unsuccessfully sued the township for demoting him. And Ferrara is a grant writer for the Union Fire Co.
Harran has said he has no personal grudges against Union or Troisi.
The Union Fire Co. started operations in 1928. It has 44 members.