By The Editorial Board
McKees Rocks residents have experienced uncertainty with their fire department the past few weeks, culminating in the borough’s decision to commission 24-hour service with the Presston Volunteer Fire Department.
Many residents who spoke to local news reporters about the topic didn’t seem to know they’ve had two fire companies operating in McKees Rocks for the past decade. They also did not seem to know about the level of coordination that exists between local fire companies.
Coraopolis Fire Chief Charles Spencer said he could not speak to anything going on at the McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department. He did say that if a department participates in mutual aid coverage, four other neighborhood departments go out automatically on each call. That means local fire departments don’t have to manually call for help if they need additional support.
“With this day and age, with the low manpower we’ve been having, this works out pretty good,” Spencer said.
McKees Rocks Borough participates in the mutual aid system. During the entirety of the uncertainty with the status of the McKees Rocks volunteer department, Presston has also been on call.
Spencer said, as of late, his department has had no problems at all with the level of support in fighting fires. Presston Fire Chief Mike Stepek said the same thing.
Borough officials in McKees Rocks including the mayor have repeatedly said there was never any danger to residents during this dispute. They have maintained the problem was about communication and funding.
Off record, and on, McKees Rocks officials have maintained that this whole unraveling of the McKees Rocks VFD happened because leadership in the organization was not forthcoming with information regarding departmental operations and finances.
In light of the gas card scandal in March 2022, where McKees Rocks Fire Chief Don Baird was accused of and admitted he used a borough gas card to fill his personal tank, it makes sense McKees Rocks would have concerns about how their financial contribution was being spent by the volunteer agency.
Baird didn’t break the law, even though other firefighters had ethical concerns with what he did. The agreement which governed the fire department was simply so outdated there were no rules against such a thing.
Clearly, the borough needed to update the contract to lay out those rules so new problems wouldn’t arise.
It also makes sense that after 20 firefighters left the McKees Rocks department in a year’s time, there was something amiss – and those external or internal factors had to be determined.
What doesn’t make sense is why this breakdown between the borough and its fire company of 40 years is even happening.
Members of the McKees Rocks department have not responded to requests for comment by Gazette 2.0. At council meetings, their representatives have been tight-lipped with us and unwilling to talk. We want their side of things and want to understand because as this situation has unfolded their perspective has been part of the mystery.
In January 2021, members of the fire department accused the McKees Rocks council of political cronyism when operational control was offered to Presston. Chief Nick Radoycis was voted out of his position and Baird was put in charge instead. Sources close to the situation at the time said the offer to Presston had less to do with revenge and more to do with caution and skepticism regarding the new leadership in McKees Rocks.
That person did not want to go on record.
We have no idea where the truth lies in a situation such as that. Other accusations about Baird were also off record and reporting on the situation started to feel like it was slipping into the realm of rumor.
That’s not a place where a newspaper should go.
In our opinion, this whole situation is just a shame. It was a shame that residents were caught in the middle of this squabble which might have had to do with pride or maybe money or both.
An announcement made by the McKees Rocks VFD stating the borough had decertified the department is part of an update to our previous online coverage of this event. It’s a fact the department made the statement. Meanwhile, the borough vehemently disputes decertification and Solicitor Megan Turnbull accused the department of misleading the public with the assertion. The VFD has an attorney, and Turnbull said she welcomed communication with them.
It’s been difficult to suss out what is true and what’s not in this situation, and our coverage has strived not to stoke unfounded fears.
What this means for residents right now is that they still have a fire department responding to calls, it just happens to be just over the border in neighboring Stowe Township. There’s also mutual aid response from other area departments.
The rest will take some time to figure out, and we’ll be here trying to separate truth from smoke and mirrors.