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Tempers flare over newly formed municipal fire dept. in Jim Thorpe

Published November 17. 2017 12:10PM

Tension over the structure of the new Jim Thorpe Municipal Fire Department boiled over Thursday night as a group of firefighters and residents called for borough council to reconsider the membership status of several volunteers.

With the formation of the municipal department in July, council required all potential firefighters, even those who had previously been active with one of Jim Thorpe’s three hose companies, to apply for membership.

While council has already approved 32 members, in addition to the chief and deputy chief, it has also rejected numerous applicants due to what some volunteers are calling miscommunication.

A group of prospective department members told council Thursday night they were told they could strike out a section of the application, while one council member said he viewed it as an intentional show of arrogance.

“The application thing doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Chris Gunsser, captain of the Fairview Hose Company. “There is a waiver section where you basically sign all of your rights away, and I wouldn’t sign that. The fire chief said we could cross it out. That is what we did.”

Several residents asked if the firefighters could reapply immediately to correct the misunderstanding over the waiver, but council unanimously decided that would not be the case.

According to the borough’s ordinance, applicants denied membership could reapply again in one year.

“Where else can you go and fill out an application and cross out something you don’t like?” Councilman John McGuire said.

When asked why borough council felt it needed to get involved in the fire department, McGuire cited several concerns.

“It’s a leadership issue to me,” McGuire said. “One thing that was disturbing to me was not passing the audits. To me, that was pure arrogance. There is a system you have to follow to make sure everything was done right. It was just awful business.”

At a recent fire scene, McGuire said, there was a volunteer who couldn’t run the pumps.

“If the people aren’t trained well enough to run that truck, again that goes back on the leader,” McGuire said. “There are young kids out on calls after curfew. I have a folder here of complaints from the last 10 years.”

Gunsser said the audit issues McGuire was referring to have been resolved. He remains concerned that experienced firefighters being left out of the new department could leave Jim Thorpe residents at risk.

“The town was left with little fire protection this week,” Gunsser said. “A lot of the members that have been approved aren’t even active anymore. We have a bunch of guys who love being firefighters. We have a way we do it, and we think we’re good at it and would like some support.

“The way this is going is not conducive to protecting the citizens and that is why we’re here.”

After adopting the ordinance in July, the borough named Bill Diehm as fire chief and Vince Yaich as deputy fire chief.

According to council President Greg Strubinger, those two men are running the department, but council is appointing the officers.

“That is the way it has been discussed for the past several years,” Jim Thorpe solicitor James Nanovic said. “It’s no secret that the officers and members of this department would be appointed by borough council.”

Council added seven names to the list Thursday night including Kenneth Patrick McArdle, Jacob Newton, Ryan McArdle, Molly McArdle, Kevin McArdle, Eric Marzen and Franklin Lorah.

Kevin McArdle, captain of the Diligent Fire Company No. 3, made it clear, however, that his future role in the department depends on the outcome of the current squabble.

“Good leadership is working toward a goal of bringing the department together,” he said. “Moving forward, it would be difficult to not be asked to be a part of the decision making, but to be expected to follow and enforce decisions. I’ve had many sleepless nights thinking about this.

“If this continues, I will not be a leader, but I will respond to fires to protect citizens as I have done for the past 35 years. I want to be part of the solution here.”

Honestly, the members have every right to be mad and to be hesitant to sign any paper as described. They are volunteering their time to do something that could very well kill them now, or cause an issue that can kill them years down the road. All for serving their community on their own time. The trend seems to be town councils getting a kick out of controlling a volunteer fire department, yet have no idea the thought and time that goes into it. Maybe the council that is requiring this should have to go thru a NFPA health physical and attain required certs and spend one year attending all the events the department needs. Since they want to have oversight and play with public safety. The town residents should be making the council members attend required classes to teach them how to supervise fire and police protection. This may help them understand this is not a game.

Take the hours of the top three fire department leaders in the last 20 to 30 years they spent taking time away from their families and jobs to ensure units get on the street with appropriate personnel. The issues cited were easily solvable without the extremes that were carried out. Kudos to all the volunteers standing their ground and shame on the town council.

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