Presston fire company off township's call-out list
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If a fire breaks out in the Presston neighborhood in Stowe, who will answer the call?
Apparently, it will not be members of the 105-year-old Presston Volunteer Fire Department in the historic neighborhood made up of former company homes built more than a century ago by the Pressed Steel Car Co.
The Presston VFD's 45 volunteers are ready and willing to answer fire calls from their station west of the McKees Rocks Bridge and bordered by railroad tracks and the Ohio River. They were called out to 148 fires in 2009, right up through Monday night.
But as of today, Presston volunteers and their two fire engines will no longer be on the Stowe fire chief's call-out list.
"We are in a Catch 22 situation," said Kevin Kochirka, president of the Presston VFD. "They don't want us."
"They" are the majority of Stowe's elected commissioners and the township's other two volunteer fire companies -- West Park and Fleming Park -- which have been consolidated into the Stowe Township Volunteer Fire Department.
Stowe commission President Howard Duerr Jr. declined comment. He said litigation filed by the Presston VFD and "a recent mediation precludes either side from talking."
Third Ward Commissioner Cheryl McDermott, whose district includes Presston, says she doesn't believe that there is a gag order.
She and Commissioners Amy Kochirka (the fire chief's wife) and William J. Schmitt voted against forcing Presston into a consolidation in which volunteers would lose control of their funds and firefighting equipment.
The majority on the commission who voted for the consolidation "are not looking at it from a public safety issue," Ms. McDermott said. "They say it's not about money, but it is about money."
She contends that the West Park and Fleming Park companies cannot get to a fire in Presston as quickly as the Presston firefighters can.
As of today, "Presston will not be called out. When more firefighters are needed to assist at a fire scene, the Stowe fire chief will call out volunteers from Ben Avon and Avalon rather than Presston," she said.
When commissioners voted in 2007 to consolidate the three volunteer companies, the Presston company balked at the prospect of turning over its funds, equipment and property.
The Presston company owes $32,000 on a firetruck and $37,000 on property the company owns, Mr. Kochirka said.
Presston's annual payments on those debts is $13,000, which the company is able to pay, Mr. Kochirka said in a telephone interview. He credited fundraisers such as the social club, which has a liquor license.
Meanwhile, the West Park and Fleming Park companies owe $700,000 for the purchase of two firetrucks, and their fundraisers and donations are not covering the expenses.
"They are looking toward our assets to rectify their problems," according to a Dec. 16 two-page "Dear Neighbor" newsletter that Presston volunteers hand-delivered to 250 homes and 50 businesses.
Presston firefighters had a deadline yesterday to opt out of the consolidation. The attorney for the Presston firefighters this week told the commissioners "we are not interested," Mr. Kochirka said.
The Dear Neighbor letter explained that Presston VFD received a notice on Feb. 24 that "if we did not join with Stowe Township FD we would no longer exist effective March 1, 2009. We filed suit and delayed this action."
The case went to court mediation, and under the terms of the settlement earlier this month, "We are to transfer title of our engines to the two fire departments along with any money left in our checking account," Mr. Kochirka said on Tuesday. The company cannot go along with that, he said.
The Stowe commissioners' vote to consolidate the three fire companies came in an executive session prior to the Feb. 24 letter, and the firefighters feel the vote was illegal, Mr. Kochirka said.
Ms. McDermott praised the Presston company, noting that when the McKees Rocks bridge was closed for six months this year, Presston volunteers slept at their fire station so their response time would not be affected.
All three of the Stowe volunteer companies "are very dedicated to saving lives and property," Ms. McDermott said. "They've always worked well together, side-by-side, fighting fires. They've all done a wonderful job. But, when the fire is out they no longer work together. This is tearing this town apart."
Stowe elected officials generally give each of the fire companies about $15,000 a year. They stopped funding Presston this year, according to Mr. Kochirka and Ms. McDermott.
Presston VFD spent the township money this way: $4,000 for utilities, $4,333 for vehicle maintenance, $2,000 for equipment and $5,000 for operational expenses, including workers' compensation and insurance, Mr. Kochirka said.
The attorney for the Presston VFD will notify Stowe commissioners this week that "we are still acting as an independent fire company until we hear otherwise," Mr. Kochirka said Tuesday.
He said he expected that members of the company would contact neighboring towns and fire companies to see if Presston can be included on their fire call-out lists.
First Published December 31, 2009 12:00 am