By Elizabeth Perry
Independent Hose Company No. 5 of Stowe, Presston Volunteer Fire Department, has officially become McKees Rocks Borough’s primary fire service as of Jan. 10.
This comes on the heels of a contract dispute between the borough with the McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department, the company which McKees Rocks had contracted with for 40 years.
“My hope would be that people would come back and try to recreate the McKees Rocks branding. We would love that. We never wanted to see them go away. We would love to help them rebuild the McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department,” Presston Fire Chief Mike Stepek said.
For nearly 13 years, McKees Rocks has had two fire companies, with MRVFD being the primary fire service contracted with the borough. Since 2010, McKees Rocks has also allowed the independent Presston VFD to be certified through the borough, providing mutual aid to McKees Rocks and other fire companies because Presston refused to merge with two other Stowe-based fire companies, West Park and Fleming Park volunteer fire departments. Stowe Township declined to certify Presston in 2010 and the fire company instead sought certification with McKees Rocks.
Prior to the adoption of the contract with Presston, the borough paid for workers comp insurance, vehicle insurance and fuel. With the new contract, Presston will get an additional $3,000 per year for supplies and training materials, $5,000 for vehicle maintenance, payment for three air cards as well as “special allocations which must be approved by the borough council from time to time.” Presston fundraises through the social club they host, and other events, but there is always a need for more equipment and training, Stepek said.
The MRVFD’s contract expired on Dec. 31, 2022, and the MRVFD prolonged talks to renegotiate their contract after voting down the borough’s monetary offer.
Council President Archie Brinza said the borough had reduced funding for MRVFD in the 2023 budget.
‘The only reason we took money out of the budget is that they told us they do not have enough people to run the fire department,” Brinza said. “They know the money would be right there if there was a viable fire department.”
On Jan. 5, the VFD announced via Facebook they had been decertified by the borough. Chief Don Baird, when addressing the council at the Jan. 10 meeting, repeated the same statement, something which the borough’s legal council vehemently denied.
“There have been a series of meetings and communications over the last six months and the borough has been consistent that entire time. The department has never been decertified. The borough has never closed the fire department. The borough has never locked out the fire department. The borough has never done anything but invite dialogue. The department has been difficult throughout this time. Your representations at this meeting are inaccurate and incendiary, to be perfectly honest,” Solicitor Megan Turnbull said.
Turnbull said MRVFD had not responded to requests for dialogue over six months until Dec. 31, 2022, when the borough received its first response, a rejection of the contract and a request for more money.
“Obviously the borough can’t force volunteers to do a job they don’t want to do, or to provide services that you don’t have the capability due to lack of volunteers,” Turnbull said.
Brinza said early on in talks a merger between MRVFD and Presston had been rejected. The notion of running both fire companies out of the same space also fell apart. In 2021, operational control of MRVFD was offered to Stepek against the wishes of some MRVFD members by then-council president Paul Krisby.
Stepek said his relationship with MRVFD had been collaborative.
“I have control of fire ground operations, and control of the run cards which brings the mutual aid and sets the playbook up,” Stepek said.
Controversy surrounding Baird ignited a year later when he admitted to using the company gas card to fill up his personal vehicle. No charges were brought, in part because of the way the original ordinance which established the MRVFD in 1983 was written – there was no specific prohibition.
McKees Rocks Mayor David Flick said the gas card incident brought greater scrutiny to the fire department by the borough. The borough council realized MRVFD’s contract had not been renegotiated since 1983. Flick said they’d sought to streamline and modernize processes.
Several firefighters who’d brought evidence against Baird in the gas investigation resigned when he didn’t face charges.
Former firefighter Ed Maritz Sr. said at the time he didn’t think the department would make it a year.
Maritz, who was the first chief of MRVFD in 1983, said in a Jan. 4 interview, he didn’t think the 40-year-old institution would last the rest of the month. Maritz’s words proved prophetic.
Over the past year, the volunteer fire department lost 20 members.
Maritz blamed the decrease in numbers on Baird’s leadership.
Stepek said residents would not have to worry because there were many local fire companies that would pick up the slack.
“There is no lack of coverage in McKees Rocks. We have mutual aid companies that are all here in a heartbeat,” Stepek said.
Flick echoed that sentiment saying the switch from MRVFD would do “nothing from a public safety standpoint.”