New salvage operations policy prompts outcry from Pa. firefighters

Under the new policy, an incident commander will decide what salvage operations are needed

By Richard Gazarik
The Tribune-Review

HEMPFIELD, Pa. — Hempfield supervisors Monday passed a resolution restricting the township's volunteer firefighter duties during salvage operations in the aftermath of fires, accidents or natural disasters.

Firemen say they are alarmed by the supervisors' decision and complained that the board has refused to listen to any of their recommendations. The resolution passed unanimously by supervisors John Bossi, Doug Weimer, Tom Logan, Bob Davidson and John Silvis.

"They still have no respect for us," said Greg Saunders, president of the Hempfield Fire Chiefs Association, after the vote.

The resolution was prompted by warnings from the insurance carrier that provides workers compensation insurance for firefighters in the township. Under state law, a municipality has to provide coverage, but the township's carrier has warned that the township could be labeled "high risk" if controls aren't placed on salvage operations.

Volunteer firefighters work on roofs, near downed electrical wires and other hazardous situations in the aftermath of an emergency.

Dozens of firemen packed the municipal building as they arrived for the meeting in firetrucks from North Hempfield, Bovard, Carbon, Grapeville, High Park, Hempfield 2, Fort Allen and Adamsburg.

Salvage work includes boarding up windows and doors of homes gutted by fire. It also involves placing tarps or plywood on roofs to cover holes made by firefighters battling a fire and includes shutting off utilities and pumping water from flooded basements.

"I am told this (policy) is needed to protect us," Saunders told the board. "We believe our protection comes from experience and training, not restraints placed by (board members) or someone who has not been in our shoes."

Under the new policy, an incident commander will decide what salvage operations are needed. The supervisors also want building owners to sign releases absolving the township from liability if volunteers perform salvage tasks that are covered by homeowner's insurance.

The resolution allows firemen to remove items from a damaged structure "when possible."

Solicitor Les Mlakar said the resolution is an addition to the 1999 Fire Safety Ordinance, which did not cover procedures for salvage operations.

"Nothing in the fire safety code at this point addresses salvage," he said.

Supervisor John Silvis said "it's all about safety and procedures."

The firemen say they don't like having the supervisors dictate policy without their input. He said in 2007, the firemen made recommendations to the safety manual "and they totally ignored us.

"We don't think it's something that should be resolved on their own," Saunders said. "I welcome safety rules. I have no problem with safety."

Don Thoma, chief of the Adamsburg and Community Volunteer Fire Department, said supervisors and manager Kurt Ferguson and assistant manager Bruce Beitel refuse to listen to the concerns of firefighters.

"We have a voice here and they won't listen to us," Thoma said.

After the March tornado ripped through the township, Thoma said Ferguson wanted his men to perform salvage work in the storm's wake.

"He said he sent $5,000 worth of equipment to West Hempfield to do salvage and now they don't want me to do it."

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