Updated: Jan 6
UPDATE: The McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department made the following announcement at 6 p.m. today, Jan. 5:
"Residents of The McKees Rocks Borough, we would like to thank you for your trust in allowing us to serve your community for the last 40 years. At this time it saddens us to announce that The McKees Rocks Borough has notified us today that we are now decertified and they have chosen to recognize Presston Volunteer Fire Department of Stowe Twp. as their fire service effective immediately."
By Elizabeth Perry
The McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department Station 189’s contract expired on Dec. 31, 2022, and as of present has not been renewed.
Robert Holzer, vice president of the MRVFD, said his organization is currently in contract negotiations with the borough of McKees Rocks but declined to comment further.
Council President Archie Brinza said the borough council is in a “transparent, aggressive negotiation,” with the fire company. He acknowledged the borough 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.”
Since 2010, the borough has also allowed the independent Presston Volunteer Fire Department to operate within McKees Rocks, providing mutual aid to McKees Rocks and other fire companies.
Presston Fire Chief Mike Stepek said at this time his organization would continue on as they always had, and he had little insight into the negotiations between McKees Rocks VFD and the borough.
“We don’t know what they’re being offered. The only thing I know is that they did not sign, they voted down a proposal from the borough,” Stepek said.
Brinza said 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 the MRVFD members by then council president Paul Krisby.
The offer never came to fruition, but controversy surrounding Chief Don Baird ignited a year later when he admitted to using the company gas card to fill up his personal vehicle. No charges were brought, and consequently, several firefighters resigned. 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 he didn’t think at this point the 40-year-old institution would last the rest of the month.
In order to be considered a registered fire department, there must be at least 13 members and Maritz said the numbers had dwindled down to five.
Maritz said he thought the decrease in numbers had to do with Baird’s leadership.
At this moment, Presston is going with the “status quo” of their verbal contract, Stepek said; the borough pays for workers comp insurance, vehicle insurance and fuel. Otherwise, Presston is independently funded through revenue from their social club and fundraisers.
“We’re still fighting fires, we’re still going like normal,” Stepek said.
Stepek said he assumed MRVFD would still respond to fires, but if they didn’t 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.
According to a document sent to Gazette 2.0, the MRVFD is still considering a merger with the Stowe Township Volunteer Fire Department, where Presston was once affiliated. Calls to the Stowe VFD have not been returned.
As of Jan. 4, the MRVFD was still open – Brinza said there were “no chains on the fire department.”
“There’s a lot of equipment down there. They’re saying let’s lock the door – I’m not doing none of that until we figure out what’s going on,” Brinza said.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect operational control of the McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department had previously been offered to the Presston Volunteer Fire Department in (year).