On Feb. 1, the West Penn Township board of supervisors suspended the Andreas Fire Company from active duty for three months.
The supervisors cited financial, safety and training concerns with the fire company for taking the action.
Since then, the volunteers of the Andreas company say they have been working to address those concerns to the board's satisfaction.
"We need the community to know that we are complying," said Rob Nunemacher Jr., the company's fire chief.
During the company's suspension, which runs through May 1, the fire company is not being dispatched to emergency calls by the Schuylkill 911 Communications Center. The company must provide financial information to the township, have its equipment tested and its personnel must be trained adequately in order for the company to be reinstated.
The suspension doesn't mean that the township has padlocked the firehouse doors, and while the Andreas company could theoretically respond to a fire even if they weren't dispatched, the company and township could face liability issues, according to West Penn Solicitor Gretchen D. Sterns.
"If they would see a fire and they go, they would not be covered by the insurance policies of the township," said Sterns. "We can't stop them, but it could make a bad decision worse if something would happen. It would be considered an unauthorized response."
The supervisors did extend the township's insurance policies to the company while it trains its volunteer firefighters.
What many might not realize is, even when the Andreas Fire Company was at active status, it is limited to the kinds of incidents to which it could respond, due to West Penn's Fire Ordinance No. 4 of 2000.
That ordinance also established the West Penn Fire Company, which was originally a spin off from Andreas, as the township's primary emergency responder.
"We are restricted to brush fire calls and structure fires within the township," explained Nunemacher. "A lot of times we would get canceled and an outside company would be called. According to the (comm center's) run cards, we are not allowed to go out of the county. Andreas can't respond without West Penn Fire Company."
Regarding the company's finances, Sterns said the township is seeking more complete information than had been submitted.
"What they gave us was a reconciliation of balances, which showed how much money they had at the beginning and end of the year," she explained. "We wanted to know how they spent their money. They have been working on compiling that information."
The company received an allocation of $10,000 from the township in 2009. The suspension has created rumors that the funds were mishandled or misappropriated, said Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Bradford.
The truth is, the company never physically handled those funds.
"The money was deposited into an account with the township," explained Bradford. "We would send them our bills, and they would write the checks."
Bradford produced a sheet with the transaction details to that account. The document was dated Feb. 22 and signed by Karen Wittig, the township's treasurer. It showed that nine checks were written to that account. Four of the checks were written to Balliet's Fuel Oil, two to Schleicher's, Inc. for repairs to an engine, two to the Seltzer Group for insurance, and one to J. Yurick's in Oneida for supplies, such as hoses, nozzles and turnout gear.
Back in November, the supervisors, following the advice of then Solicitor Paul J. Datte, did not disburse fire relief funds to Andreas, citing lack of proper financial audits.
"Datte cited the Second Class Township Code that we would have to submit audits to them or else they couldn't give us money," said Bradford. "Datte misadvised the township, because the only audit necessary is for funds appropriated to the fire company by the township. That's asking for an audit of their own books."
Sterns said it is important to review all of the financial records in order to get an overall picture of the company's fiscal shape.
"Say the township gives them $10,000 and they have $20,000 of their own. We would want to know if that other $20,000 was spent on frivolous things or if they are spending it on equipment and training."
Regarding fire company audits, Bradford said Andreas had submitted that information through CPA Lucy Murphy for 20 years, and up until 1999, it seemed to be sufficient.
"The last 10 years, we gave them some funds, but they never told us what they were looking for. Four months ago, we asked them again, what do you want us to do, because we want to comply with everything you want. They said they wanted our financial records. We turned in our records to the township, and they wanted more detail," said Bradford.
"We can't turn in what they want if we don't know what they are looking for," added Nunemacher.
Sterns noted the township code has changed over the years regarding what financial records the township could request.
Bradford said the township had been accepting annual audits submitted by West Penn Fire Company and Penn Mahoning Ambulance, which were done by Sandra Steigerwalt. Andreas obtained copies of those audits and plan to model their records in a similar fashion.
"Now we know what they are looking for," said Bradford.
Training and safety
Sterns stated that the majority of the township's concerns regarded safety issues rather than financial items.
"The greater concern is over safety," she said. "The township wants safety for the people being served, as well as for those going out in the field.
"Some of the safety information the township wants is whether the equipment is tested, such as air bottles, air packs. Their hoses must be pressure tested. We also want to know what level of certification is needed as far as training goes."
Nunemacher said Andreas currently has 24 active members, with 19 senior members and five junior members. The company holds training sessions on Tuesdays; Nunemacher said Supervisors Chairman Alfonso Martinez recently attended one such session.
The township has the list of Andreas' members.
"They have younger guys, and we don't want to discourage them. We want them to have certain hours of training," said Sterns. "If someone gets hurt, and the township knew what was going on and didn't do anything, that's a serious liability issue."
The company is hosting a Beginning of Firefighters course, starting March 2. The course includes 188 hours and costs $95 per firefighter.
Bradford noted the company is being suspended for lack of training, but the township hasn't offered to help in that regard, either.
The company is working to schedule an ISO Quality Assurance inspection.
"We asked for Gretchen to call and ask for the inspection," said Bradford. Sterns said she is in contact with ISO regarding the matter, although an inspection might have to wait until the company is reinstated.
Sterns said the township is enlisting the services of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development's Governor's Center for Local Government Services as a third party to evaluate Andreas and determine the proper level of standards of training.
"One of the center's services is fire delivery system evaluation," said Sterns, who said the supervisors will make a formal request to DCED at their next meeting on Monday.
"There are no state statutes regarding minimum hours of training for firefighters. The township wants to make sure the bar is set at a reasonable level, which is attainable but insures the safety of the firefighters, the residents and their property. We are looking for DCED to set that bar."
Sterns stressed the board is seeking a full, township-wide evaluation from DCED, which would not just focus on Andreas but West Penn Fire Company as well.
Bradford invited West Penn Fire Chief Leroy Breiner, as well as the supervisors, to do an inspection at any time, to show the progress being made in addressing concerns.
"The only thing we want is to be treated fairly," said Nunemacher. "It seems that every time we take a step forward, we are put two steps back."