They could have been cheering. Instead, Tamaqua Police, along with fire and emergency personnel, were left shaking their heads after a 21-year-old male was arrested Saturday night for calling in a series of false fire alarms.
Christopher J. Sanders, 21, of Center Street, Tamaqua, and a 14-year-old female, were taken into custody Saturday as they sat on a bench near the Tamaqua ABC Hi Rise. The duo allegedly made a 9-1-1 call to the communications center, reporting that smoke was coming from the windows of the apartment complex. It appears they then hung around to watch the firefighters' response.
The Schuylkill County Communications Center has been receiving such prank calls, according to Tamaqua Patrolman Matthew Bynon, "for several months, stretching into last year. And, unfortunately, the fake 9-1-1 calls have been coming more frequently in the past few weeks."
Fire, ambulance and police personnel were dispatched to the high rise unit at 6:46 p.m. Saturday after the comm center in Pottsville received a 9-1-1 call concerning smoke coming from the top floor of the high rise building. As firefighters responded, their thoughts were torn hoping it wasn't another false alarm, but desperately wishing the fire wasn't real.
As police responded, Patrolman Karl Harig was contacted by a dispatcher at the emergency center. The dispatcher told Harig the fire call had been made from the same cell phone used to call in previous false alarms. At the scene, Officer Harig saw Sanders and the juvenile female sitting on a bench near the area.
Through the combined efforts of police, fire personnel and dispatchers, Sanders had been identified as a possible suspect weeks earlier, although some of the calls had definitely been made by a female. As Harig and Officer Bynon questioned the duo, they observed a cell phone in Sanders' hand. An additional cell phone was found in the suspect's right front pocket. Both were taken into custody, with Sanders admitting to being responsible for Saturday's false alarm call, as well as calls made on Dec. 27, 2010 and Jan. 28, 2011. The department is investigating an additional 11 such calls made between 2010 and Saturday's date.
The female was released in to the custody of her mother with charges to be referred to juvenile authorities.
Sanders was transported to the Schuylkill County Prison, Pottsville, where he was video arraigned before duty District Judge Carol Pankake of Tremont. He was charged with three counts of making false reports, three counts of disorderly conduct, corruption of a minor and criminal conspiracy. Bail was set at $35,000 straight cash and Sanders was incarcerated in the prison.
The Schuylkill County Adult Probation Office will be filing a detainer against Sanders, who was on parole for similar incidents he was convicted of in Bethlehem.
Tamaqua Police Chief Dave Mattson commended Bynon and Harig for their efforts, as both officers had been working on the prank calls and identified Sanders as a possible suspect.
"Despite the capabilities of the communications center, some types of cell phones are not that easy to trace. This arrest was a combined effort of the dedicated officers, as well as dispatchers who went above and beyond trying to track the suspect, and the firefighters who continually risked their lives to respond to these fake calls. All involved did a fantastic job of solving these cases. It's unfortunate that some people get a kick out of making such false reports. We are really lucky that no one has been injured. The potential for such risk is enormous."
Fire Chief Tom Hartz Jr. also commented on the situation.
"As Tamaqua Fire Chief, I will also be pursuing charges against this individual. This man's constant prank calls over the past months have jeopardized the lives of all our volunteer firefighters, police and paramedics. I'm really glad no one was hurt and I hope this gentleman gets the proper help he needs."
(TIMES NEWS Correspondent Andrew Leibenguth contributed to this story.)