Pittsburgh TV station WTAE focused their May ratings sweeps efforts on calling attention to the challenges facing the area’s volunteer fire departments. Action News investigative reporter Paul Van Osdol presented several reports in late April and throughout last month, focusing on several issues:
A 3-part report detailed the differences in response time between those agencies that have paid personnel standing by in station versus those that don’t, and the reasons affecting those disparities. If the words “apples” and “oranges” popped into your head after reading that, you’re not alone.
Additional reports highlighted other touchy subjects, such as fire response politics and the voluntary firefighter training standards in place here, compared to a mandatory certification process in other states such as West Virginia.
The reports on response time generated a considerable amount of feedback. A fire chief in Monaca published a thoughtful, articulate response on his department’s website, and was featured in a follow-up report, along with a story that featured those viewer comments that met broadcast standards for decency.
I say that because there was also a fair share of backlash – a Facebook page urging a boycott of the station garnered numerous “likes”. Comments posted to the station’s social media pages ran the gamut from earnest support for the firefighters to expletives deleted.
WTAE also responded to the viewer feedback in the form of an Editorial, which seemed to be an attempt to soften the impact of their own reporting. Station management also called for hearings at the state level to effect changes at the local level – changes that, judging from the responses by those with either a stake in the status quo or just opposed to any sort of change, will likely continue to run into roadblocks in the morass that makes up the manner in which we Pennsylvanians choose to be governed.
This series of reports approached its conclusion with an interview of State Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committee. Sen. Vulakovich emphasized, among other things, the need for many of the state’s 2,300 fire departments to merge. Fire Engineering published a story last year detailing the issues and challenges involved in optimizing service to Pennsylvania citizens through consolidation of existing independent departments. Several local fire officials were interviewed.
Throughout the series, Mr. Van Osdol featured interview footage with one of Sen. Vulakovich’s former colleagues – Tim Solobay – who was appointed by Governor Wolf to serve as State Fire Commissioner.
Mr. Solobay, who also serves as a fire line officer in Canonsburg, became available by virtue of his being defeated for re-election to the Senate last November. His appointment has not been without its share of controversy. Governor Wolf was the target of much criticism from media and fire service alike for failing to re-appoint the previous commissioner, Ed Mann, who had served several administrations over the previous 14 years. The bulk of the criticism is aimed at the perceived political motivations behind Mr. Solobay’s appointment.
Commissioner Solobay gave what I thought were largely disappointing answers to most of the questions put to him by Mr. Van Osdol, at one point stating, “I’ve only been in for three months. Give me a chance to work on it“. In all fairness to Mr. Solobay, perhaps former Commissioner Mann could have been approached to give a more comprehensive accounting of what he accomplished in these areas during his tenure.
This series of reports is certainly not the first time that the mainstream media has turned their attention to these issues. The Post-Gazette reported on the issue of staffing and consolidation in 2012, the year after elected officials in O’Hara Township and Edgeworth took direct action with regard to the provision of fire services.
There have also been several controversies with regard to fire departments and their municipal overseers during this calendar year –
- In January, a house fire in McKees Rocks near their border with Stowe Township brought complaints from area residents who stated that the firehouse in neighboring Stowe is physically closer, but was not initially requested to respond.
- It seems that the firefighters for the two independent fire departments in largely rural Fawn Township can’t seem to agree on much of anything. Township commissioners are slated to vote on an ordinance that basically attempts to force these departments to work together, under threat of fine or imprisonment.
- In 1999, three of the five volunteer fire departments in North Versailles Township consolidated their operations. The resulting F.D.N.V. allegedly prefers to work with departments in neighboring municipalities, rather than the remaining two departments within the township. The township is one of the few that provides financial support through a fire tax, which the township commissioners are withholding from F.D.N.V. unless the department adheres to township policy, which requires all township fire departments to work together. The Tribune-Review elected to weigh in on this dispute. In a May 28 editorial, they alluded to the almost Solomonic challenges involved:
It is a correct decision. Is it the right decision? The answer is more complicated.
The editorial reached a conclusion that seems to resonate with anyone having a genuine interest in serving the public:
A solution must be reached before this mix of politics and stupidity has deadly results.
- With that in mind, East Pittsburgh Borough has decided to send some sort of message to its one-truck fire department, by refusing to pay for that truck to be inspected.
I was largely impressed by most of WTAE’s reporting, but in the weeks following their last report I haven’t seen any follow-up, and have grown skeptical as to their resolve in continuing to report on these issues, especially in the wake of the negative comments they encountered.
Unfortunately, the station will likely look toward the next ratings book to measure their success, instead of taking a greater measure from serving the public interest, which is how they qualify for their license to use the public airwaves.
It will also be interesting to see how these disputes are eventually resolved – will the sanctions imposed soften the hardened stance of those bent upon maintaining operating postures that are increasingly unsustainable in this age of reduced staffing and increased response expectations? Or will the municipalities, faced with an intractable challenge to their oversight responsibility and liability exposure, opt for the examples set by others and impose a “death penalty”?
The answer is not only more complicated – it is critical to creating traction to bring about improvements in the way that critical emergency services are delivered in our region. Our local media has a responsibility to the public to assure that traction is maintained, through continued diligent reporting on not only the failures, but on the successes as well. Our local governments have an obligation to encourage, if not insist upon, reasonably transparent operations by all service providers.
Regardless of tradition, interpersonal conflict, or financial constraint, the expectation that competent, adequately staffed resources will be available to respond at all times to requests for emergency assistance continues to resonate among citizens and the lawmakers that represent them. As citizenry become more focused on government operations, those who continue to shirk responsibility or misplace priorities will find their positions increasingly untenable.
To their credit, many area fire departments embrace minimum standards for training and other benchmarks, and actively practice established incident management techniques, which include utilizing resources based upon objective criteria, such as geographic proximity and/or resource typing. Some are actively pursuing partnerships that transcend tradition, infighting, and the archaic imaginary lines that too often impede the progress toward more efficient governance in Pennsylvania.
Our volunteer firefighters deserve our support and appreciation for their efforts. Those communities that provide that support reap the benefits from responsive departments with members that deliver an intangible, invaluable return on that investment.
In those communities that are struggling to maintain the identity of a bygone age, perhaps it is time for a wholesale re-evaluation of how that community functions, especially with regard to adjacent communities and their respective response organizations.
In either scenario, may common sense and common decency prevail, for the benefit of all.