North Versailles officials approve a hot-topic fire policy

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North Versailles commissioners passed a new fire policy Thursday that critics say does not go far enough in promoting public safety.

Commissioners George Thompson, Frank Bivins, Sam Juliano, Vince Paradine and Russell Saula voted for the policy, and commissioners George Beswick and Daryl Mitchell voted against it.

The vote followed a lively meeting before a standing-room crowd of residents speaking for and against the policy changes.

“I have been coming here for 18 months asking that the three fire departments act together as one,” resident Beverly Manz said.

The commissioners who favored the policy said its effect is to make the fire departments act as one.

In July at a meeting at the Fire Department of North Versailles, Mr. Beswick and fire department officers said FDNV members don’t always call the West Wilmerding and Crestas Terrace fire departments for help with an alarm.

That's because they feel the Crestas and West Wilmerding firefighters lack training, and that may endanger FDNV firefighters.

Bernard Furby, chief of the Crestas Terrace Fire Department,responded to that Thursday, saying: "I've got news for you, we're training. We're training."

Officers at FDNV also have said there have been at least two incidents in which West Wilmerding firefighters received DUIs while driving fire trucks.

The ordinance passed Thursday will require all three fire departments to be called to fires in the township.

“This isn’t going to put the residents’ safety in harm's way,” Mr. Thompson said after Ms. Manz’ comments.

But Beswick said the majority commissioners "took the safety out" of the policy by revising it.

He said that in July, Commissioners Russell Saula and Vince Paradine gutted the policy he had put forth that would have required all township firefighters to have advanced emergency training courses.

That proposal did not make it into the policy passed Thursday. Courses that were removed from the new policy include National Incident Management System classes 100, 200, 700 and 800.

Firefighters would still be required to take four classes in the essentials of firefighting; structural burn training and a hazardous materials class.

Sandy Hillgartner of the Fairhaven Plan said at the meeting that she had been told the commissioners wanted to lower training standards and eliminate background checks.

“Being a fireman’s mom, it is extremely important that these men and women are trained,” she said. “It’s (also) very important they do background checks."

Mike Volpe, chief of the Fire Department of North Versailles, said in July that the deleted NIMS courses in how to handle disasters have been required for firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel

since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

After the meeting Thursday, Mr. Saula said the NIMS classes are federal requirements, not state ones.

Officials noted that firefighters still must have background checks under the revised policy.

“There’s not going to be any pedophiles running around (putting out fires),” Mr. Thompson said.

The Fire Department of North Versailles sent a letter to residents before the meeting asking them to attend and ask why their safety was being

jeopardized by the elimination of most training classes for firefighters in the revised fire policy, and by the closing of the Green Valley fire station.

Mr. Thompson told them that Green Valley will stay open as a substation.

What has changed, according to Mr. Juliano and Mr. Saula, is that Green Valley no longer has a vote in deciding how to distribute state fire relief money.

In July, Mr. Beswick said the Fire Department of North Versailles, with its main station and stations at Green Valley and Dixon Hollow, had been casting three

votes in the decision-making, giving it control of the relief fund money.

Since the closing of the Dixon Hollow station, FDNV has had two votes -- one for Green Valley and one for its main station -- while the West Wilmerding and Crestas

Terrace departments each had one vote.

Commissioner Saula said after the meeting that it wasn’t fair for FDNV to have two votes in deciding how the money is allocated.

While the new policy retains wording saying that anyone drinking or using drugs during an emergency call will be suspended immediately, a provision

Mr. Beswick wanted that said firefighters should wait eight hours after having a drink before going on emergency calls was removed.

Mr. Saula explained why he and Mr. Paradine removed that wording.

“If you have one beer, it doesn’t take eight hours to go through your system,” he said.

West Wilmerding lost its status as a fire department at one point because firefighters there wouldn’t sign the township’s previous fire safety policy,

Mr. Beswick said in July. “At that point in time, they were put out of service by the township,” he said.

He said in June 2011, Judge Michael McCarthy of the Common Pleas Court Civil Division reinstated West Wilmerding as a fire department, with the

requirement that its firefighters meet requirements of the fire policy in place at that time.

In January 2012, the commissioners revoked the earlier policy, making the judge’s decision null and void, Mr. Beswick said. Ed Mann, state fire commissioner, has said there is no state law

mandating what the township's fire safety policy should look like. It requires only that adequate fire protection be provided to the means and

extent required by local government, he said. At the end of the day, the majority in local government will determine what the policy says, Mr. Mann said.

He said many communities in Pennsylvania don't even make policies governing their fire departments.

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