‘Tacky Buzzer’ Stirs Emotions in Sewickley

Station 258 with Horn

Sewickley Municipal Building and Fire Station, Thorn and Chestnut Streets. – The fire horn on the building is circled in red. Credit: Google Maps / John Linko

After moving to Sewickley at age 11, one of my favorite stops while exploring on foot and bicycle was the Police Desk in the municipal building. Desk Sergeant McCandless presided over the various technical systems that allowed him to answer phone calls, communicate with officers by radio, monitor prisoners in holding cells, obtain information from state computer databases, and alert the fire department to incidents requiring their attention.

That notification included the sounding of the extremely loud and incredibly close fire horn atop the building.

A few years later, as an unofficial summer intern at the Sewickley Herald, I heard then-Editor Betty G.Y. Shields, who was also instrumental in planning Sewickley’s celebration of the 1976 bicentennial, call the horn the “tacky buzzer”, after a similarly sounding device featured on TV’s The Hollywood Squares.

The bicentennial celebration called for the ringing of church and other bells at 2 P.M. on July 4th. B.G. Shields said she would have some choice words for someone “if they set that thing off too”. One blast each day at noon was also part of the routine back then.

In the early 90’s, as a part-time dispatcher for Sewickley Borough, I got to push the magic button that would start the cycle of loud blasts, along with paging firefighters by radio. Not long afterward the horn blasts were reduced in number, but if you’re within a few blocks of the fire station it’s still enough to elevate you from the insoles of your shoes.

As the technology of notification has improved, and wireless connectivity within our society approaches ubiquity, increasing numbers of citizens are questioning the continued operation of Sewickley’s fire horn.

Longtime resident Matt Chapman started an online petition to get the borough and fire department to stop using the horn. This effort first appeared among comments to a February post on Sewickley Patch, but it appears the petition itself has only been online since mid-May. The campaign has gained sufficient traction in that time frame to warrant front page coverage in the June 26 Herald. 

Per updates on his petition site at Change.org, Mr. Chapman has been diligent in speaking before council and contacting several borough officials, including those at the Cochran Hose Company, whom both council and borough administration state is in charge of the horn and its operation. I do wonder who pays for the electricity to power the thing, however.

The latest update from Mr. Chapman summarizes the responses he has received from borough officials, and the reasons he has been given for the horn’s continued use. Some borough officials, such as Mayor Brian Jeffe, appear sympathetic to the effort. Borough Manager Kevin Flannery and Fire Chief Jeff Neff appear to be reserving judgment, while committing to a research period of 60 days.

I hope that this period brings a sincere body of information to the table, in part because the rhetoric from Mr. Chapman seems to be that of trying to reach some sort of compromise – this ranges from getting the horn shut down just at night to exploring a funding mechanism to help firefighters obtain better communications equipment.

Mr. Chapman’s complaint is almost conciliatory and resolute at the same time – trying to strike a balance between protecting the community and protecting his children.  I can’t speak to what I don’t know, however.

Here’s what I know:

Internet-based applications and commercial wireless messaging can keep firefighters and other emergency responders informed of requests for their services, but it’s not something that can be relied upon as a stand-alone method.

These systems are dependent upon complex connectivity, involving multiple internet service providers, telecommunication companies, and wireless networks. One server failure, cable cut, or power outage in any number of locations can mean that the message doesn’t get to where it needs to go.

This is why most emergency personnel carry radio pagers, augmented by sirens (also set off by radio) that alert personnel and the general public when emergencies occur. These radio-based systems are owned and operated by public safety agencies, and are reinforced by redundant transmitters and emergency power systems.

There are still emergency sirens in our area that serve multiple purposes to their respective communities. Edgeworth may no longer have its own fire department, but the siren still goes off every evening when curfew time approaches.

In Beaver County, there is a network of sirens that serve both local fire departments as well as the evacuation warning system for the Beaver Valley Power Station nuclear facility at Shippingport. This network of sirens covers a radius of 10 air miles around the plant -this extends to as far as South Heights, which is not so far away at all.

I spoke with one fire official in Leetsdale, where there is still an operating siren located along Route 65 near Ferry Street. He stated that there was once a second siren, located atop the former municipal building and fire station on Broad Street, which would generate complaints from nearby residents. This siren was taken out of service when the new municipal building was opened in 2007.

To his knowledge there have been no complaints since, and from my vantage point the Leetsdale Fire Department continues to be a dynamic, responsive organization, reflective of the community that supports it.

In most communities with volunteer emergency services, there is a routine to the mobilization of the townsfolk to an emergency. This system has an almost theatrical quality to it – the siren is the town crier, the pager the information source. For those with a loved one in the mix, or those with a personal or professional curiosity, the police scanner is the link to the pulse of one of the most essential services that a government can provide.

The local communities that depend upon volunteers for fire service have an excellent group of resources serving them. The response to Wednesday’s train derailment is indicative of the level of commitment to training and effective coordination among our area’s response agencies.

Public Safety is, by its nature, a reactive profession. Those who assume the mantle of responder attempt to prepare for all manner of emergencies through training, planning, and exercising those skills and plans regularly. Part of these challenges include leveraging and adapting to changes in technology that can alter and/or complement those skill sets and response plans.

Public safety agencies in most of the Quaker Valley area recently transitioned to new radio frequencies, which means new radio equipment and new capabilities that will impact existing processes. Firefighters must adapt to these and other changes when operating in simple or complex response environments.

I have difficulty with the notion that these dedicated individuals would be unable to adapt to a different type of siren.

A scan of news stories related to this topic reveals that community conflicts about sirens can become more contentious than anyone would like. Last year in New Jersey, at least two sirens were moved in response to litigation.

In 2009, a Westmoreland County township threatened to remove the dispatch authorization for a fire department unless they changed the timing of their siren, which was described as “set at 92 decibels for 14 cycles at 15 seconds each”. That’s 3 minutes and 30 seconds of continuous siren. This department still shows as being in business, so I guess the siren got changed.

Sometimes Mother Nature intervenes, as is the case this past May in another New Jersey town, where endangered birds built a nest inside the siren. I wonder if any of those Crescent Township bald eagles are looking for a new home…Just kidding.

When the Herald posted their story from last week on their Facebook page, some of the numerous commenters vilified Mr. Chapman for even suggesting some type of change – something that I can only attribute to our growing societal inability to disagree in a civil manner. One comment tried to over-simplify – “Only in Sewickley”.

I’m afraid that’s not the case, but it would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if Village Green Partners got a comment from someone stating that the most memorable part of their Sewickley shopping experience was getting blasted out of their new shoes. I’m sure that their mission of making Sewickley “a vibrant regional destination” does not extend to vibrating visitors’ dental work.

As someone who has pushed the button to set off the ‘tacky buzzer’ as part of a lengthy career in public safety, I can see the reasoning on both sides. Some type of public, audible alert is still necessary, if for no other reason than to assure that no isolated single point of failure prevents firefighters from being quickly notified of an emergency.

However, the ‘buzzer’ has been too sudden, and too loud, for too long. Some type of adjustment, whether in the type of noise pattern, timing, and/or volume level, would be an appropriate compromise in changing times.

Considering the civil tone and growing support behind Mr. Chapman’s efforts, I can’t imagine how competent, responsibly operated organizations such as Cochran Hose and Sewickley Borough can refuse to consider changes.

Enjoy your Independence Day weekend.

Posted in Local, Politics, Public Safety, Technology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Chatham vs. Alumni – Evolution and Symbiosis

Over the past few months, there has been some occasional reporting and discussion in the Pittsburgh media on the May 1 decision by the Board of Trustees of Chatham University to open undergraduate admission to men beginning next year.

Chatham is one of the premier undergraduate colleges for women, founded in 1869 as the Pennsylvania College for Women. The school prominently counts among its alumnae the biologist, conservationist, and Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson, who is generally considered a patron saint of the environmental movement.

Ms. Carson is recognized primarily for her book Silent Spring, which influenced public policy-making with regard to environmental issues, most notably with the banning of the pesticide DDT. Depending upon whose scientific account you believe, you can probably thank Rachel Carson for all those bald eagles we enjoy around here nowadays.

The university, which already offers graduate degrees to both men and women, is experiencing a period of growth and risk. They are presently undertaking the ambitious expansion of a new satellite campus in Richland Township, at the former location of Eden Hall Farm. This campus will serve as the home of Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability, and is being designed “using the latest in environmentally responsible technology, design and innovation”,  in part to honor the legacy of Ms. Carson.

The university cited financial trends and forecasts affecting single-gender colleges, and this expansion of its physical plant in the face of declining undergraduate enrollment, as among the factors influencing its decision.

There is also a vocal group of alumnae who are, as one might expect, not pleased with the decision to go co-ed. These alumnae leveraged several social media platforms, including a blog and website, under the name Save Chatham.

As you might expect, both sides of the argument bring forward lots of information to back their positions. I won’t go into all of the details here. The university says that Chatham needs to be co-ed in order to continue to exist. That’s an issue of contention for those who value their prior experience as students there, and want to see those traditions extended to future generations of young women.

Those alumnae that disagree have succeeded in gaining traction for their cause among a larger group of Chatham graduates, garnering as many as 2000 likes on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Apparently feeling a need to adjust the nature of their existence to a longer-term model in the wake of the decision by the school to go co-ed, they polled those who frequent their social media sites for ideas to rename the group for its continued purpose.

The winner – Chatham College Independent Alumni Association (CCIAA) – has generated some questionable and perhaps disingenuous legal activity on the part of the university.

The 4 alumnae who founded Save Chatham/CCIAA received a cease and desist letter from legal counsel for the university, alleging trademark infringement on the name “Chatham”, which according the Save Chatham blog the University applied for earlier this month.

It appears that the university is concerned about confusion between any “Independent” group of alumni using the word “Chatham” to advocate for positions that the Board of Trustees sees as “contrary to Chatham’s mission and interests”.

The reaction by the alumnae involved has been one of caution and preparedness. They secured their own legal counsel, which replied to the university’s letter last Friday, declining to change the name of the association.

Per the letter and the Save Chatham website, the trademark action that Chatham University took on June 6 identifies it as providing “Educational services, namely, providing courses of instruction at the undergraduate and graduate level; alumni organization services”.

There are lots of Chatham High Schools, and other educational institutions in this country sharing that name, who are engaged in largely the same activity – I don’t think they’ll be asked to change their names because a college in Pittsburgh feels threatened by the actions of some “rogue” alumnae who refuse to accept the university’s decision, and/or move on.

Regardless of what you think about the efforts of these alumnae, they have the right to dissent, and to organize others who are sympathetic to their cause. It’s hypocritical for the university to encourage reasonable, academic discourse within its walls, while attempting to discourage it elsewhere.

Considering the likelihood that many Chatham alumnae have expressed their displeasure regarding the change, and may continue to express themselves by withholding financial support, the university seems to be more interested in reducing the effectiveness of this new group of “independent” alumni, by attempting to use an overly broad definition of trademark infringement.

I’m no lawyer, but the university’s actions feel like a prelude to a SLAPP - a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Should the university sue, its underlying purpose could be just to intimidate this new alumni effort into changing their name or otherwise minimizing the impact of their mission, whatever that might eventually be.  There is legislation pending in the Pa. Senate to reduce the effectiveness of SLAPP suits.  Let’s hope it won’t be needed.

Both entities are in the midst of evolutionary change – Chatham University appears to be jumping into the race with other regional colleges and universities for students and education dollars. These campaigns seem to be taking up more advertising space, signaling another uncomfortable trend among what are supposed to be non-profit institutions. As we’ve seen locally, non-profits can be as nasty as their corporate counterparts.

CCIAA was created and energized in response to the significant change put forth by the university, but will also be challenged in the future to find issues worthy of discussion and advocacy beyond a conflict that may be moot once the first male freshmen matriculate in the fall of 2015. The group’s Facebook page contains a link to a form for interested alumnae to register their areas of interest, and provide feedback for the organization’s continued existence.

Will Chatham University and a breakaway alumni group be forced into a symbiotic existence, a close union of two dissimilar organisms? Perhaps a disjunctive symbiosis, where the organisms are not in bodily union but nonetheless gain some type of biological advantage from the relationship.

It’s either that, or the alumni that refuse to accept these changes in their beloved institution risk falling into a tragic obscurity, like the Ellen Jamesians in The World According to Garp.

It’s the kind of biological conundrum that might have impressed Rachel Carson herself.

Have a good week ahead.

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Public Information – How To Do it

Mesa County Mudslide

The north slope of Grand Mesa, approximately 5 miles southeast of Collbran, Colorado. The West Salt Creek drainage and surrounding landscape have been permanently altered by a 3-mile long, half-mile wide landslide that occurred May 25.  Two ranchers and a local water official are missing and presumed dead.                                         – Credit: Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Three days after returning home from our trip to Colorado, the county where I used to live became the focus of national media coverage that rattled an otherwise bucolic Sunday in the 24-hour news cycle.

A huge landslide carved a chunk from the ridge of Grand Mesa, one of the world’s largest flat-topped mountains. This resulted in a massive movement of mud and earth estimated at 3 miles long and one half of a mile wide.

The slide may have begun as a smaller slide that impacted irrigation water flows to area cattle ranches. Two ranchers and one water official took a pickup truck and ATV into that area to investigate. They are nowhere to be found, and likely never will be.

The initial scope of this event has been difficult to comprehend, even by many seasoned emergency service and land management experts. All levels of government, numerous private and public agency stakeholders, and a concerned local community are all involved and in need of updated information.

This is because of the questionable stability of the slide area, as water continues to drain from the top of the mountain into new “lakes” that could cascade into existing creeks and streams without warning, and catastrophically flood populated areas.

Grand Mesa slide from the top

The slide area as seen from above the top of Grand Mesa.    Credit: Mesa County Sheriff’s Office

Throughout this event, information coming from the varied stakeholders involved in assessing the effects of this slide, and informing citizens and the media as to how they should prepare for the future, has been coordinated by what in Incident Management circles is known as a Joint Information System, or JIS. According to FEMA:

A Joint Information System…provides the mechanism to organize, integrate and coordinate information to ensure timely, accurate, accessible and consistent messaging across multiple jurisdictions and/or disciplines with nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. A JIS includes the plans, protocols, procedures and structures used to provide public information. Federal, state, tribal, territorial, regional or local Public Information Officers (PIOs) and established Joint Information Centers (JICs) are critical supporting elements of the JIS.

In Mesa County, Colorado, a permanent JIC website becomes active during major incidents, and provides all manner of links to news releases, transcripts of meetings, audio, video, and still photography, for both general public and media use.

This website was very busy in the days and weeks following the slide, and included hashtags and connections to posts on numerous social media platforms. That changed earlier this week, when command and information responsibilities were transitioned to another arm of county government, and the JIC was shut down until the next incident.

The JIC site is operated by members of the Mesa County Communications Officers Association, composed of PIOs from all layers of government, public utilities, and the private sector.

This includes representatives of the energy exploration sector and the county’s largest school district. These are entities that I have been critical of in the past, for what I consider deliberate reticence in the face of legitimate inquiries about occurrences that are in the public interest.

Many PIOs are communications professionals – not of the Dispatching variety, but that of Public Relations. They are an effective and valuable resource for the daily dissemination of public information, and promoting their agency’s image and agenda within the communities they serve.

Professionally delivered public information can be used to reinforce a professional operating environment, helping to assure that accountability and transparency come with the collection and dissemination of credible, official information.

On the flipside, it may be used to provide an illusion of operational stability, while dysfunction reigns in the shadows. I’ve seen examples of both in the course of my career and avocations.

Spin is often an unwritten part of a PIO’s job description, and managing the message is sometimes given a higher priority than managing the incident. This is as unsavory as it can be counterproductive.

In the face of a major multi-jurisdictional incident, this need for message control seems to take a back seat to providing a single, authoritative, and comprehensive source of information to both the media and the general public.

This is where PIOs working together in a JIC can excel, and that’s what happened during this most recent incident in Colorado.

Summer is fast approaching – for Coloradans, that means wildfire season. There and in most other locales, unsettled weather is always a factor, as is the potential for incidents tied to the sometimes reckless pursuit of recreation.

The PIOs of Mesa County seem well prepared to assist their responder partners in assuring that citizens are as well apprised of what’s going on as they can be. It’s a lesson that many other parts of the country can benefit from as well.

Be safe. Have fun.

Posted in Government, Grand Junction, Media, Public Safety, Rural | Tagged , | Leave a comment

With Wings As Eagles…

I hope that this past month has been a good one for you.

I spent the first weeks of this month preparing for a trip to Colorado to observe and celebrate my son’s college graduation – a watershed moment in a young adult’s life as there ever could be, I suppose, since I have not accomplished what Evan has. His mother would be very proud of him.

The trip was enjoyable for its core purpose, and some interesting waypoints found along the way – places like Pueblo, Dodge City, and an impressive antique mall in a place that touts itself “Midway U.S.A.“. I have to learn to share more of the driving – it wore on me, and in turn it wore on Leslie. I still enjoy the road (or the rails) over the skies.

During the first few days of May, Leslie and I were sitting on the front porch steps, watching raptors and carrion birds make their usual rounds over the wooded hillside that separates the bulk of Leetsdale proper from the houses that spread off of Camp Meeting Road as it winds upward into Leet Township.

One bird stood out from the rest – a Bald Eagle, possibly from the nest across the river in Crescent Township, one of three documented nests in Allegheny County that have also seen considerable activity in producing offspring. The eagle appeared to be clutching some type of prey in its talons – something gray, perhaps a rodent – food for the family.

There has been a groundswell of local interest in Bald Eagles and their offspring, thanks in part to the considerable efforts of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and other stakeholders to provide 24/7 streaming video of the nest in the Hays section of Pittsburgh. There are numerous other wildlife cameras in the Pittsburgh area as well.

Evan 1996 K

First Day of Kindergarten, August 1996

There are three fledglings in that nest this year – the progression of their existence, from appearing as eggs to hatching, being kept warm and safe by the female, and now seemingly in the nest largely alone while Mom and Dad are out hunting, has been a video saga that eclipses most soap operas or inane reality shows. And as with any good TV show, there are highlights available.

A recent Post-Gazette story tried to provide some understanding about the habits and risks of life as a Pittsburgh eagle, and did so rather well.

With the popularity of the eagles’ adventures online, combined with their symbolism in the national consciousness, I keep drawing them close when thinking about the grand adventure that is (or should be) raising a child in today’s society.

facebook_-911092103 (1)

College Graduation, May 2014

To be honest, Evan populates a nest not of his own creation, one that he will presumably fly away from someday. I’m hoping that he will continue to challenge himself in what is already a challenging career path and job market. Journalism is a field in the midst of more dynamic change than others. I feel as if he’s got the skills and the mindset to make it wherever he wants to, on his own terms. I’m looking forward to see his progress, however tentative those first “flights” may be.

Like any parent, I worry about negative influences, unforeseen pitfalls, the spontaneous hits that life often provides. I do Evan a disservice, however, if I jump in at every small indication of a problem. Like those fledglings, he may have to fend off a predator, be prepared to weather the storm, get ready to fly away, find a partner, and make his own nest.

As parents, Leslie and I watch with reserved trepidation the approach that many of this generation may take toward the manner in which we will exist as a society and a nation. The Bald Eagle found dead this month near a popular nest in the Poconos, killed by feeding on the carcass of a euthanized animal that was perhaps discarded in woods or incompletely buried in someone’s backyard, speaks to the carelessness with which we as a society treat our surroundings, not thinking about the potential effects of a seemingly routine action.

These, along with an unhealthy focus on skewing our own human environment with mind-altering substances, remain items of great concern to the national consciousness.

Of equal and growing concern is the toxicity within the human mind that facilitates a self-righteous rationalization for severe hatred and extreme acts of violence. The male that perpetrated the mass shooting in Isla Vista, California last week left footprints, digital and otherwise, for others to follow into some very dark places. An editor at Salon tried to place a name to the phenomenon – “Toxic Male Entitlement”. This editor, Katie McDonough, went further -

Just as we examine our culture of guns once again in the wake of yet another mass shooting, we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm. 

A rather different approach was taken by Mark Manson, who describes himself as teaching “a reality-based form of self-development, as investigated through a deep understanding of psychology and culture”. His expansive post on the subject of recent mass shooters takes the media to task,  in part for enabling those with a varying social agenda, i.e. gun control, violence against women, and improved access to mental health care to dominate public discourse about the issue.

While these are all factors worthy of discussion and consideration, I agree with Mr. Manson that other, more important concerns are being drowned out in the process:

Here’s what doesn’t get the headlines: Empathy. Listening to those around you. Even if you don’t like them very much.

Along with the need to empathize, all of us, including and especially this latest edition of the generation of the delusionally invincible, need a dose of humility in our lives.

Where that comes from – whatever deity, tradition, or belief system from which it may originate – is up to you. Choose wisely.

There are many examples of how the eagle symbolizes this and other positive life approaches across culture, mythology, and religion.  For those of us that embrace Christian traditions and beliefs, there are two familiar passages from scripture that illustrate this:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession’. – Exodus 19:4-5 (NIV)

Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:  But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.  – Isaiah 40:28-31 (KJV)

Our return from Colorado has presented us with the realization that new and additional challenges are on the horizon – challenges related to adults in middle age with young adult children and aging parents. More watershed moments are likely in the offing.

The past month combined many different emotional responses to a lot of different things going on. In the midst of all of these, and whatever may happen in the coming months and years, the spirit of both nurturing love and self-reliance present in the eagles of Pittsburgh will hopefully serve as guideposts for all of us as we face life head-on.

Have a blessed month and summer ahead.

Posted in Faith, Family, Grand Junction, Media, Personal, Public Safety, Travel, Youth | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

I Drive “Killer 65″ – In More Ways Than One

Kristina Serafini of the Sewickley Herald wrote a short op-ed in this week’s edition about some of the craziness she has witnessed while commuting from Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs to the Sewickley area, mostly along Pa. Route 65, AKA Ohio River Boulevard, AKA “Killer 65″ – a moniker earned several decades ago in the wake of several high-profile fatal traffic accidents.

Ms. Serafini is passionate about the subject because she lost a close friend in a traffic crash. She has seen her share of distracted driving and outright recklessness on a stretch of road that is challenging in its design, configuration, and use. So have I.

My commuting experience differs slightly from Ms. Serafini’s in that I am a shift worker. One of the benefits of this is that at least one leg of my commute usually takes place during decidedly non-peak travel times. Despite this, I still see my share of crazy driving, mostly of the extremely fast and reckless variety.

I also drive Route 65 several times a week, as part of my commute to work in the eastern fringes of the City of Pittsburgh. I’ve been driving it as long as I’ve known how to drive, save for the years I lived in Colorado.

That period was an eye-opening experience into the future of traffic management – so much so that one of the toughest things to get used to upon returning was the nature of motoring in Pennsylvania. This includes roads whose conditions and maintenance are both questionable and inconsistent, where present usage and traffic loading have long exceeded that which the roads were designed for, and where driver competence is a decidedly mixed bag.

In the course of commuting, I’ve come to believe that speed is not as much a factor in accidents as inattentiveness, incompetence, or intransigence.  This also goes for laws and policies that don’t keep up with changing utilization patterns, technology, and/or business practices.

To explain further, I’m going to use as a framework several of the key issues of the National Motorists Association, an advocacy group that has been in existence since 1982, and whose RSS feed has been featured in the sidebar of this blog for several years. Some of the issues that I’ve observed are:

Speed Limits - An NMA fact sheet on speed limits states the following, which seems to describe Route 65 very well:

According to a speed-limit brochure published in conjunction with the Michigan State Patrol…unrealistic speed limits create two groups of drivers. Those that try to obey the limit and those that drive at a speed they feel is safe and reasonable. This causes dangerous differences in speed.

This is a common occurrence on Route 65, especially during the business day. A significant group of drivers choose to exceed the posted speed limits on a routine basis, and like myself monitor what is safe and reasonable. Familiarity with the roadway is likely a factor in this decision-making process. The posted limit is 40 MPH for most of the roadway, going up to a robust 45 MPH along straightaways with fewer access points or curb cuts.

The NMA’s position on this:

Speed limits should be based on sound traffic-engineering principles that consider responsible motorists’ actual travel speeds.

Typically, this should result in speed limits set at the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic (the speed under which 85 percent of traffic is traveling).

These limits should be periodically adjusted to reflect changes in actual traffic speeds.

A related news story this week is an additional item of concern for motorists and commuters. Pa. State Senator Randy Vulakovich (D-Shaler) introduced legislation this week that would give local police departments the ability to use radar for speed enforcement.

Pennsylvania is the only state where local police can’t use radar, which raises the question why it’s such a big deal for them to have it. I personally don’t have an issue with it – while this would give the locals the ability to pull over vehicles going 5 MPH over the posted speed limit instead of the current 10 MPH with other forms of speed detection, police departments still have to commit man-hours to the effort, just like they do now.

Considering the prevailing speed often traveled by motorists on Route 65 and other locations, I believe that police already realize that they can’t pull over every car on the roadway. The spectre of the speed trap may crop up initially, especially among those municipalities that see traffic enforcement as a potential revenue stream.

Common sense use of radar will hopefully be the end result, should the bill pass.

Then there’s the not-so-bright idea of using technology to identify speeders and red light runners, through detection camera systems. Pittsburgh City Council voted late last year to begin a pilot program after securing approval from the Legislature.

Last week the Colorado State Senate passed a bill banning the use of red light and speed cameras statewide. They’ve raised the ire of local governments and the companies that make the things by doing so, but it appears that the measure has bipartisan support so far, and the Governor is thinking about it. At least three other state houses are looking into doing the same thing.

Having been unjustly victimized by a Denver red light camera, all I can say is if it happens, good riddance. I hope that Pennsylvania isn’t so far behind the curve as to not pay attention to the trend before traveling down that rabbit hole of misery.

Another key component of a safe, efficient commute is Lane Courtesy. Simply stated, slower traffic uses the right lane, and left lane traffic yields to faster traffic. With a road like Route 65, a caveat for those making left turns needs to be added:

Unless you are making a left turn or passing slower traffic, stay in the right lane.

The failure to do this contributes to traffic backups on southbound Route 65 through Sewickley all the way to Interstate 79, due primarily to drivers who plan on accessing the Interstate via the left exit, and their steadfast refusal to either leave the left lane or speed up.

One fortunate improvement in recent years has been the reconfiguration of Route 65, in areas of higher commercial density, to include a center turn lane and/or left turn lane at some intersections. Examples of this can be seen in Edgeworth, Avalon, and Bellevue.

Despite this, there are still drivers who insist on driving in the left lane at or below the speed of the prevailing flow of traffic, creating an impediment to efficient travel and engendering ill will among many. There are at least two student transportation vans who are regular offenders along my daily commute. I wonder if they’re told to do this for some reason.

Other chronic problems don’t have any easy answers either. Add a few big rigs in the wrong places, and it can often take upwards of 5 minutes to traverse the three traffic signals at and near the Sewickley Bridge, our local area’s most notorious traffic pinch point.

With a robust construction season approaching, patience will become an ever more important and scarce commodity as drivers of varying degrees of skill, expertise, and discipline will attempt to peacefully coexist on our area roadways.

So take heed – drive smart. That means attentiveness, courtesy, safe and reasonable speed, and moving over if someone else wants by.

Have a safe and pleasant week ahead.

Posted in Government, Local, Traffic, Transportation | Tagged , | Leave a comment

South Fayette Update – Supplying Our Own Light

Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.

- Rush, “Subdivisions” (1982)

The excited trepidation that accompanied the possibility of a Presidential visit to Leetsdale was just as quickly swept away by Monday, when it was announced that Wednesday’s visit was relocated to a CCAC satellite campus in North Fayette Township. The White House was quoted by the Trib as stating the new location “could more easily accommodate a presidential visit”.

Now there’s a diplomatic understatement.

No use in crying over spilled visits from the leader of the free world. If any good comes of this, perhaps it will generate some serious movement about creating a second point of vehicle access in and out of Leetsdale Industrial Park – that entire side of the borough, for that matter.

What seems to be more impressive than even the President coming to town is the public response to the events in the South Fayette School District that I touched on in a post last weekend. Up to last Saturday, the story had existed on several conservative and issues-oriented media websites for almost a week, but had not been reported on by any Pittsburgh-area media.

At least two local talk show hosts had several messages with links to these stories posted on their social media pages – especially after the mass stabbing incident at Franklin Regional High School – and did not respond to them. It might also be fairly stated that this story might have continued to be conveniently ignored locally had Franklin Regional not occurred.

That all changed with Monday’s edition of the Tribune-Review. Reporter Adam Brandolph not only established the same information reported online for a week prior, but went a step further in Tuesday’s paper by delving into the viability of the legal actions initiated by school administration, and taken forward by South Fayette Police and District Justice Maureen McGraw-Desmet. This culminated with Thursday’s report that a Common Pleas Court judge had signed an order formally withdrawing the citation. 

The actions by authorities leading up to that withdrawal generated varied reactions from several experts on bullying and media law, including the Allegheny County District Attorney. None of these have cast a very favorable light on the actions taken.

The response from those authorities to this slightly belated groundswell of publicity has been to continue to refuse to talk about it. Aside from a tersely worded press release from the school district stating that information in the media is “inaccurate and/or incomplete”, these authorities will not elaborate further.

This does not lend itself to a feeling of confidence in those officials, both elected and appointed. Quoting the Trib on Friday:

And, incredibly, Mr. Stanfield was convicted before a district judge. If heads don’t roll, the injustice will be even greater.

 

S Fayette Board Meeting

Marie Sneel of South Fayette addresses the South Fayette Township School District Board during a meeting on Tuesday, April 15.   South Fayette High School Principal Scott Milburn can be seen in the background looking at Ms. Sneel.                                                                                                                                              Heidi Murrin – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

This continued at the School Board level, as several parents expressed concerns to the South Fayette Board at a Tuesday night meeting. The Trib account of the meeting quoted board President Len Fornella as saying “This is a school issue”.

Mr. Fornella – the public schools belong to the people.

The people of South Fayette elected you to represent them.

Therefore if “this is a school issue”, then for you it is the people’s issue. You owe it to them to at least attempt to address their concerns, lest the people choose someone else who will.

 

 Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you: build, therefore, your own world.

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The online comments from readers of the various local media outlets paint the same general picture of opinion about how the incident was handled. Many commenters allege that a rigid cultural hierarchy is in place at South Fayette, and that Christian Stanfield may be the tip of an iceberg that has been building over generations and decades of similar socio-economic “subdivisions” at South Fayette and other suburban high schools.

We must be honest with ourselves about these divisions, and that unpleasant side of human nature that causes one group of people to prey upon another for no other reason than they are different. The message must come from home and school that in a civilized society this is no longer acceptable.

An excellent Post-Gazette story from Monday seemed to emphasize the need for schools to address the potential for violence – not with draconian physical security measures, but by establishing a culture allowing for students to feel comfortable reporting problems to staff, and training for staff to assure that they respond to those reports in a consistent, responsible way. Or, as a commenter to an ACLU blog post about school discipline wrote:

…when school cultures and climates change from a focus on control and discipline to a focus on relationship building, respect, and trust between all members of a school community.

One factor that seems to stick out from this episode, especially when compared to the aftermath of the Franklin Regional incident, is the amount of information being communicated to the general public. I can find no evidence on the South Fayette website that they employ a Communications or P.R. professional, such as Quaker Valley’s Tina Vojtko. It feels to me as if they could benefit from that.

No amount of laws, policing, or policymaking will change what is a cultural phenomenon without a serious look at how we raise our children. What they are taught to value at home is and will always be a critical component, perhaps diving into deeper areas of parenting and education than first thought.

For example, South Fayette has a state championship football team, and with it perhaps a robust athletic sub-culture. This is a nice way of saying that maybe the jocks rule.

I wonder what the Special Education budget at South Fayette looks like in comparison to that of the Athletic Department. That’s a discussion for another time.

 

Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique experience, but there’s a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.

Stephen Chbosky, from The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Christian Stanfield’s mother, Shea Love, told the Trib in a story published Wednesday that the incident and resulting outcry has transformed her normally reserved, introverted son. “He has a hard time speaking up for himself, but he’s looking at this as a fight for other people, not for himself”, Ms. Love stated. Indeed – Ms. Love initially chose to protect her son’s identity when speaking with Ben Swann‘s website, but this changed quickly once the local media got interested.

This statement, and Christian’s new-found self-confidence, reminded me of the above quote from a popular work of fiction, written by a native of neighboring Upper St. Clair.

Even with the plodding delay in getting the local media engaged, since then the events surrounding this incident have been rapid-fire – perhaps too fast.

State Rep. Jesse White (D-Cecil) jumped on the bandwagon with both feet, announcing that he would be introducing a bill to exempt the recording of bullying incidents from the state wiretapping statute that Christian was threatened with.

Trib reporter Aaron Aupperle dug deeper into this effort. In a story in Friday’s paper, he found a roadblock to this legislation in of all places the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The ACLU’s Legislative Director, Andy Hoover, stated “There are numerous ways for schools to address bullying without turning every kid into a spy with a camera. When you open up the wiretap act in this way, it leads to unintended consequences.”

I like Jesse White. I hope that he gets re-elected. His bill will likely founder or get amended to death because it wasn’t thought out very well. There definitely needs to be wiretap law reform, but it needs to apply to more than just this single issue. Victims and witnesses to violent crime are already exempt – build on that.

I have to give credit to the Tribune-Review for stepping up and bringing the issue to the local forefront. The rest of our local media, which essentially rode the Trib’s coattails, need to take a long hard look at themselves for trying to ignore what could be actions that contribute to events like Franklin Regional. This all seemed to be for the sake of not having to draw from sources such as Ben Swann, Alex Jones, or Matt Drudge.

The news sites run by these men wear their conservative, at times alarmist agendas out on their sleeve a little more than I would like to see.  The Trib, while apparently the least likely to dismiss these sites out of hand, still seems to live up to its advertising by keeping their viewpoint restricted to the Opinion page.

 

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.  

- Stanley Kubrick, 1968

The many citizens that pleaded with our local media to investigate this further also deserve credit for not giving up until their demands for coverage were satisfied. Like Christian Stanfield and his mother, they supplied their own light to illuminate injustice and questionable practices.

Those voices will likely continue to resonate with those children who reside on the margins of the boxes that our society, media, and culture try to shove them into, those who love them, and those who will not rest until respect for everyone becomes as important an ‘R’ as the other three.

Theirs is an example that perhaps all of us can build upon.

Have a blessed Easter weekend.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Local, Media, Public Safety, Schools, Security, Youth | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

School Safety – A Tale of Two Incidents

Those of us who, as high school students, remember having to slog through the then-unappreciated prose of Charles Dickens, probably remember this one really long sentence:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

What Dickens was describing was London and Paris in the late 18th Century, but the description – now well admired by my more adult sensibilities – shows that our times are just as well described by the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities.

This struck me as I was contemplating the aftermath of yet another episode of significant school violence, this time in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Franklin Regional High School sits in neighboring Westmoreland County, in the comfortable suburb of Murrysville.

By the accounts and information available, the response to the scene and the management of the victims and the investigation was well-coordinated. There is scanner audio which seems to indicate that the on-site School Resource Officer made a radio call to Westmoreland 9-1-1, which only recently started dispatching Murrysville’s Police Department. That action combined with the 9-1-1 calls received got a coordinated response, from multiple counties, rolling rather quickly.

The expected media frenzy was equal measures sad and entertaining in its chaos. KDKA talk show host Marty Griffin was actively soliciting information via his Facebook page in the first hours following the incident. The That’s Church blog chronicled well the social media equivalent of reporters trying to trample one another for the first bits of information.

As time has progressed, other media outlets have taken the expected step of trying to delve into the mental state of the assailant; whether or not he had problems, or had been bullied. From all available accounts, this was a “normal” kid, a good student, with no prior criminal record.

The young man’s attorney is alluding to bullying as a potential contributing factor to the assault. This will no doubt lead to additional discussions about the suspect’s mental state, and what specific circumstances may have contributed to his violent outburst.

Let’s be honest – bullying has been around for many generations, if not longer. Some of the emotional and physical scars are significant, and are only intensified when the means of inflicting those scars is through the wide reach of the Internet, especially social media. The federal government’s anti-bullying website devotes a section to these considerable effects.

 

Amidst all of this attention being paid to school violence, and bullying as a contributing factor to retaliation, we also need to consider a story from earlier this week concerning the handling of bullying accusations at South Fayette High School, south of Pittsburgh at the Allegheny / Washington County border.

As reported by the independent news site benswann.com:

In February, the student made an audio recording of one bullying incident during his special education math class. Instead of questioning the students whose voices were recorded, school administrators threatened to charge him with felony wiretapping (emphasis mine) before eventually agreeing to reduce the charge to disorderly conduct. On Wednesday, March 19, the student, whose name we have agreed to not include in this story, was found guilty of disorderly conduct by District Judge Maureen McGraw-Desmet.

Additionally, the story reports that the student was ordered to delete the recording from his tablet, and no action was taken against the students who were recorded doing the alleged bullying. The student’s mother is appealing the judge’s decision to a higher court.

The official blog of the U.S. Department of Education lists the Top 5 Ways Educators can Stop Bullies:

  1. Create a Safe and Supportive Environment
  2. Manage Classrooms to Prevent Bullying
  3. Stop Bullying on the Spot
  4. Find Out What Happened
  5. Support the Kids Involved

From the reporting online, it appears that South Fayette school administration failed to apply any of these principles in this instance.

Extensive searches of the local mainstream media have turned up no local coverage of this. None.

Despite this, the story has gained traction as it was picked up by websites such as Vocativ and PINAC, and eventually by the Drudge Report. Some of these sites have gone so far as to provide e-mail, phone numbers, and other publicly available contact information for the school administrators and police officials involved, as well as the District Judge. This has likely had the effect of causing these authorities to develop a defensive posture toward comment or interaction with any of those citizens who may have contacted them to express their displeasure OR support.

The South Fayette Township School District has refused to comment, as is becoming common in the age of privacy laws. It’s likely that the police and judge are also trying to ride the waves unnoticed until the storm of public interest dies down.

The argument could be made that given this posture, the story is a waste of the local media’s time. Given current events and community concerns about what happens to kids in school, I respectfully disagree.

These two incidents appear to represent a lot of what is good and bad about how our schools respond to safety issues. One school lived a nightmare scenario, responded professionally, and along with their community is displaying resilience and a commitment to grow from the adversity. The best of times, the worst of times..

The other school chose to punish the victim for trying to provide evidence of what was happening to him, erase that evidence, and basically pretend that it never happened. If that’s somehow not the case, then the school needs to say so. State Rep. Jesse White (D-Cecil), whose district includes South Fayette, stated in a Facebook comment that additional information would be available “soon”. I hope he’s right.

Should the incident at Franklin Regional be determined to have at its root unresolved bullying or other abuse, the incident at South Fayette seems to complete a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. Is it within the realm of possibility that a student treated in such a way at one school could eventually lash out in the way another student did at the other school?

Let’s hope that our schools continue to learn from these occurrences, while taking a moment to pray for comfort, peace and healing for the victims and their families.

Best wishes for a good week ahead. The President is coming to Leetsdale – can’t believe I typed that. This could be interesting…

Posted in Civil Liberties, Government, Local, Media, Public Safety, Schools, Security | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Quilting with a Backhoe, and Other Specialties

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Aerial view of a section of Broad Street in Leetsdale shows numerous places where the street has been opened for various utility repairs. (Bing Maps)

This past week’s Sewickley Herald included a story about the intent of Leetsdale Borough Council to draft an ordinance requiring additional responsibilities on the part of those who open borough streets, primarily for utility work.

With the borough gearing up to do some much-needed street repair and paving (those who regularly navigate the minefield that is Village Drive can appreciate this), the effort makes good sense, especially considering the amount of utility openings some streets have endured – see the photo above.

Borough Engineer Dan Slagle, quoted in the Herald story, made an interesting comparison:

“Whenever there’s (an issue),  (utility companies) come out, and they’ll open up a 4-by-4 hole in your asphalt and say, ‘Oops, it’s not here,’ They’ll go down another 15 feet and open up another 4-by-4 hole,” he said. “Next thing you know, you have about six of these together, and it looks like a quilt”.

Judging from the meticulous and exacting nature of Leetsdale’s existing street opening permit process,  Mr. Slagle has already crafted a solid foundation from which to build new requirements to preserve the integrity of newly paved and existing roadway surfaces. It’s a good idea for the borough and its taxpayers.

Coincidentally, the Edgeworth Water Authority is preparing to undertake a long-planned line replacement project in Leetsdale, which will impact traffic along the entire length of Rapp Street, one of several streets that connect Beaver Street, Broad Street, and Ohio River Boulevard.

According to the person answering the phone at the authority office, contractors will meet late next week, followed by activity in the affected area. This person also added that all area residents who will be affected by any water service or parking interruptions during the work will be notified well in advance. I’ll try to find out more, and post updates if I do.

Mr. Slagle’s quilt analogy drew my attention to some other things going on in my own life and those of others that involve the extremely social, yet often private art of quilting.

I’ve come across two seemingly paradoxical examples in recent weeks:

Teena Quilt 2

A sample of the Amish quilt work on display at Teena’s Quilt Shop,    near Volant, PA.

Leslie and I took a trip to the Niagara region of Canada last month to celebrate our anniversary. While the trip was cut short by a snowstorm, we did spend some time on the way back exploring the Volant and New Wilmington areas of Lawrence and Mercer Counties, home to one of the largest remaining communities of Old Order Amish in the region, if not the country.

Prominent along Pa. Route 208 between these two towns is Teena’s Quilt Shop, which occupies part of a farm structure behind the house where the proprietor resides. We were greeted by a young girl, maybe 4 or 5, in traditional clothing who spoke no English. Her grandmother (also the operator of the shop) admonished her in the same German-sounding dialect, and then invited us in.

The shop contains some extraordinary examples of local Amish handiwork – the lone photo doesn’t begin to cover what is on display. The shop takes cash or checks only, because there is no electricity, phone or computer to process credit cards. The owner apologized for the chilly temperatures inside, adding that she didn’t stoke up the shop’s wood stove because she didn’t think she would get many customers that day. Counting us and (ironically) a family from Canada, she wound up getting more than she bargained for.

We also enjoyed lunch at Alice’s Pizza in New Wilmington. A normally active little college town, things were quieter there due to spring break at Westminster. The hospitality and the food didn’t skip a beat, however.

Along with the scenic countryside, following the occasional buggy and crossing at least one covered bridge, the area is a quiet diversion and just a few minutes’ drive from the commercial wasteland district anchored by the Grove City Outlets. We do hope to return to the area later in the spring or summer.

A decided change of pace was just a short drive away.

Granite Mountain Quilt

A quilt made by Layers of Hope for the families of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, killed in the June 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.  (Layers of Hope)

I recently found an uplifting article in the latest edition of 9-1-1 Magazine, one of the finer dispatch trade publications, which is celebrating its 25th year.

While now publishing exclusively online, the magazine still puts out lots of relevant, original content by some of the most knowledgeable and forward-thinking leaders in the industry. This relevance is emphasized further in that 9-1-1 Magazine provides a much-needed source for information and opinion outside of that produced by the major dispatch trade associations.

This time, Editor Randall Larson highlighted the efforts of one retired dispatch professional in Washington state to create symbols of support in the form of handmade quilts for emergency dispatch centers, responders, and their families impacted by major critical incidents.

Layers of Hope, along with initiatives such as 9-1-1 Cares and the creation of TERT Teams, which send dispatchers to assist dispatch agencies impacted by disasters, arose not long after the impacts of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

The quilting effort is reaching across the country, in the form of both financial assistance as well as plenty of helping hands now making quilts for responders involved in the lengthy rescue and recovery efforts at the catastrophic mudslide in Oso, Washington. There are links for donation information on the group’s blog page.

Later this month will mark National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. This is largely marked by proclamations, lunches, free swag, and other forms of recognition from the response community, management, and those trying to tacitly court the favor of those who, often just by their tone of voice, can and do influence whether emergency incidents go well…or don’t.

From the looks of these and other efforts, the role that these professionals play, and the stressors they are subject to, are garnering increasing attention in the emergency response community. Having plied the trade in some very different parts of the country, I can say that this recognition is slower in coming in some places than it is in others.

Let’s hope that the beauty of this artwork can somehow help spread the word.

Enjoy the month ahead.

Posted in Art, Government, History, Local, Personal, Public Safety, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment

Fire, Tragedy, and Transparency

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Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

                                                                                                 – Philippians 4:6-8 (NIV)

A little less than a year ago, I took the above photo of a shirt in my collection after the Boston Marathon bombings. The Boston firehouse that this shirt comes from was the closest to the bombing site, and as I wrote at the time also carries the burden of being one of the busiest houses in the nation.

Leslie and I attended a funeral at our church yesterday. While I had only met the man once, and only for a brief time, it was touching to see how he impacted those around him, and how their recollections of him, in both words and pictures, shaped a mental picture of this person to someone unfamiliar with his daily presence.

Yesterday also brought more difficulty for the families and firefighters of Boston’s Engine 33 and Ladder 15, as two of their own succumbed to injuries sustained while fighting a 9-alarm apartment building fire in Boston’s Back Bay.

Something that is becoming increasingly easy to locate, listen to, or look at online is bystander video, recorded radio traffic, and even video from cameras mounted on the helmets of involved firefighters.

I had the opportunity to listen to about 37 minutes of audio excerpted from radio traffic of the fire in Boston. The crew of Engine 33 apparently became trapped in the basement, and can be heard making a mayday call fairly early into the recording. These mayday calls continued, becoming more frantic as the minutes ticked on, until they stopped. You could hear them running out of water, then breathing air, and then time.

I’ve listened to lots of fireground audio, but this had an impact that was unexpected for me. I’ve always tried to learn something from what I heard, such as what strong vocal stress patterns sound like through a digital radio, filtered by SCBA.

Today I thought about how others perceived this information, and whether or not its seemingly immediate availability was somehow doing a disservice to the effort to make government more transparent, by simultaneously de-sensitizing the listener to the danger, horror, and anguish reflected by the voices of not only those on scene, but in dispatch as well.

Along with the difficulties of knowing also comes the extreme emotions associated with uncertainty. This has been most recently evident among the family members of the passengers and crew of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Their anguish and anger has transformed their group dynamic toward activism.

There is an example of this kind of uncertainty playing out in our local area, with search for 55 year-old Ruth Mullenix of Wilmerding. Searches have been conducted along the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks, where some of Ms. Mullenix’ personal effects were found.

Sadly and tragically, the only result of these searches thus far has been the death of a volunteer firefighter, struck by a passing locomotive as he navigated the tracks as part of his department’s search dog team.

Amidst the continued uncertainty as to this woman’s fate, and the tragic circumstances of the firefighter’s death, loom questions about how and/or why these things happen. Aside from the metaphysical or spiritual implications of such a curiosity exists a quest for understanding and learning, with the end goal of obtaining as much of the truth as we can, and learn from what we have found out.

In many instances that truth is the realization that we will sometimes never find out what really happened. Whether that outcome is rooted in causes of a human, divine, or other origin remains within the perception and judgment of each of us.

With growing citizen awareness of their abilities and rights to record public activities, the ability to convey those images to the world, and the lengths to which their government has gone to watch them, those in positions of authority struggle with how to effectively manage or govern in an increasingly transparent environment.

Examples of this can be seen with regularity on websites such as Photography Is Not a Crime. If you need some local flavor, the recent decision by the commissioners of one Allegheny County municipality to outlaw firefighter helmet cams offers some curious insight into the nature of local government, and its sometimes paradoxical charm.

Some people need God’s help to handle the truth. Some don’t, or don’t think that they do. If you do pray, join me in offering prayers for those from Boston and Youngwood who made the ultimate sacrifice, and for those who love them. Think also about those in our midst who may be grieving over the loss of a loved one, whether recent or not.

May they know the peace that transcends all understanding.

Enjoy the spring.

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QV Highlights – Limiting Sass, Fake Grass, Farewell to Brass

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), "Freedom of Speech," 1943

Freedom Of Speech – Norman Rockwell, 1943
- The Norman Rockwell Museum

One of the pitfalls of being a shift worker is the limits it places on being present for some of the activities that the seeming majority of civilized society seems to take for granted. Take, for instance, the ability to more actively participate in what I have on occasion referred to as the paradoxical charm of government of, by, and for the people.

I’m referring specifically to the ability to attend government meetings. While it’s true that our system allows for all citizens to have access to the process of governance via our elected representatives, there really isn’t a replacement for showing up in person and witnessing the process unfold. This is especially true when a significant portion of citizens have issues with the manner in which they are being represented – the “paradoxical charm” part of the equation.

For a truly impressive example of this, check out what’s been going on at the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in the south hills of suburban Pittsburgh. This since an attempt last November by that district’s board to hire a sitting board member to a newly created administrative position, only to swear him back onto the board two weeks later in the wake of a significant public outcry that led to his resignation from the new, cushy job – which paid $120,000 a year.

That outcry has continued into this year, with standing-room only crowds at board meetings that have resulted in some creative and controversial approaches to ‘accommodating’ the throng. The district has taken to live stream meetings on their website – something that would have probably been laughed at until people started acting up.

This sudden mobilization of Baldwin-Whitehall taxpayers has been bolstered by a comprehensive web presence for what is now known as BW Action. Those spearheading the effort to obtain answers, as well as the resignation of at least one board member, have a well-updated source of current news and events, as well as a statement of goals and objectives that identifies what the group wants to accomplish, and how they want to get there.

All of this has not been lost on the administration of the Quaker Valley School District, which has experienced an increased amount of taxpayer discontent in recent years. QV is in the process of revising its policy on public comment, considering a 5-minute time limit as part of the proposal. The board’s policy committee was scheduled to discuss the proposed changes at their February 11 regular work session.

Board member Gianni Floro was quoted by the Sewickley Herald that “you can say volumes in five minutes”. He’s a lawyer – I’ll bet he can. Superintendent Joseph Clapper was quoted as offering the following as well:

“Certainly, we’re not opposed to participation of the public, but it should be always appropriate and hopefully meaningful.”

Part of me understands what he’s saying – truly, I do. But part of me also says that a school official’s ability to tell me what’s appropriate and meaningful ended when Superintendent Kite and Principal Cortese handed me my QV diploma all those years ago.

The Herald story cited other comments from board members that seemed more conciliatory in nature, and offered some common sense examples of guidelines on public discourse that exist in other districts.

I’m hopeful that the Board will arrive at a solution that allows for maintaining decorum while respecting the rights of all citizens, regardless of their ability to speak in public with confidence and/or brevity. 

***

One saving grace that helps someone who can’t go to meetings is the ready availability of government documents and other information online. The Quaker Valley website has lots of good information and details that may otherwise go unnoticed – these are often contained in the agendas and minutes of public meetings.

When it was reported in last week’s Herald that the Board approved the purchase of new artificial turf at Chuck Knox Stadium, I was both excited about the upcoming changes and interested in what kind of turf they had purchased.

This was especially considering that one board member voted against it, over the potential for additional, unpredictable costs that hadn’t been addressed to her satisfaction. Marianne Wagner campaigned as a fiscal watchdog, and she seems to be living up to that so far.

Regardless of  whether it may cost more later to deal with drainage issues, there is no doubt that the turf needs replaced. Despite careful maintenance, the surface is starting to resemble that outdoor carpet on the concrete patio of the house you or your parents might have owned in the 70’s – where you know it looks like crap, but are just trying to squeeze another summer out of it. Never mind what it must be like to try to play a sport on it.

Review of the January 28 Board agenda, combined with an answer from QV Communications Director Tina Vojtko, revealed that the new surface will be installed by Shaw Sports Turf, a division of Shaw Industries, described online as “the world’s largest carpet manufacturer and leading floor covering provider with more than $4 billion in annual sales and approximately 24,000 associates worldwide.”

Shaw Industries is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway group, and already has a significant local presence, operating a distribution warehouse for its flooring products in the Leetsdale Industrial Park.

The turf to be installed is Shaw’s Legion 41 “turf system”, which incorporates 2-inch high “grass” fibers made from a combination of two different plastics. The turf is supported by an infill material of rubber and sand, providing “a firm surface for predictable, consistent ball roll and increased player performance“. All of this is supported by three layers of backing, one with weep holes designed to facilitate moisture drainage into whatever drain system is in place.

There are numerous online media releases about the installation of Shaw products around the country, with very little if any online posts regarding complaints or problems. One item that I have personal familiarity with is the potential for high field temperatures in summer weather – temperatures of similar turf systems in the high desert of western Colorado have approached 180 degrees in mid-August. Hopefully this will not present a problem for participants or citizens, who will no doubt be clamoring to try out the new field when it finally gets put in.

***

One other noteworthy news item is the announced retirement of QV Superintendent Dr. Joseph Clapper. His will be a difficult replacement – by all accounts he has been an excellent leader and administrator, through some difficult projects and situations, right up to the controversy in Leetsdale regarding the purchase of adjacent property for traffic and/or other improvements at the High School. In that instance, the district’s approach to dealing with the residents was fraught with ineffective communication strategies, as well as a lack of transparency. Regardless of the eventual outcome, Dr. Clapper’s impact on QV’s continued performance and reputation has undoubtedly been positive.

As it happens, the agenda for the Board’s monthly legislative meetings includes a summary of the Personnel Committee’s report. This includes personnel activity that requires board approval, including resignations, retirements, and the hiring of new personnel.

The agenda for the meeting of January 28 (the minutes have yet to be posted) showed that the district’s School Resource Officer, Robert Wright, also intends to retire after the end of the school year in June. Asked about the future of that position, Tina Vojtko replied:

…the administration is recommending that the position be filled – pending budget approval in May or June. We hope to fill the position prior to the start of the 2014-15 school year.

I’m working on a more comprehensive post about school safety and security, so I won’t dive into the topic too much here. I hope that whomever seeks, and is ultimately selected for the position has enough of an understanding of the local public safety system (Officer Wright is also a part-time Sewickley officer) to continue the positive aspects of coordination and interaction with local public safety assets.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. More about that later.

Best wishes to both Dr. Clapper and Officer Wright in their future endeavors.

Stay warm.

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