Pa. fire chief, 16 others removed from volunteer fire dept.

Fire department board president Jeff Stivenson said Vernon Township VFD was reorganizing to "better protect the community"


By Tyler Dague
The Meadville Tribune

VERNON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The supposed lack of focus on fire protection has led to the Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department's board removing its chief and naming a new one.

Vernon Township VFD's board recently removed Chief Derek Leskowak, while First Lt. Jesse Berkoben and EMS Captain Jared Spencer, along with 14 others, are no longer part of the department.

David Lauderman is now serving in the leadership role along with a roster of 22 firefighters and three junior firefighters. Lauderman took over the position of chief on Oct. 8. Leskowak had been chief since May 2017.

"We removed Derek, his first lieutenant and a lot of other firemen because they were not providing fire protection," Lauderman said. "They did not have enough training as firemen. The two fire trucks were not being taken care of. They understood the EMS side but not the fire rescue side."

Lauderman confirmed the department brought on six formerly retired firefighters. Currently on the roster, five are national certified firefighters and five are prior fire chiefs, according to Lauderman.

"We're not going to let our doors close," Lauderman said. "We're going to train the next generation to be better than the previous people."

Lauderman also said the emergency medical technician certification program that works with Allegheny College students will continue, and the department's junior firefighter program is back in effect.

Fire department board president Jeff Stivenson said Vernon Township VFD was reorganizing to "better protect the community." He said Leskowak did not have members trained to drive or run fire trucks.

"The problem is we had a fire chief that focused on EMT stuff and not fire," Stivenson said. "(Leskowak) wanted to buy an ambulance. We're a fire department, not an ambulance service. The people we have now are concentrating on being a fire company."

Lauderman said the board of directors had been trying to transition Leskowak out of office since February. The board finally voted to remove him on its third attempt Oct. 8. The board votes along with the general membership of the whole department, according to Lauderman.

Leskowak disagree with the removal process.

"The board made the decision to remove me without the vote of the active firefighters that served during my time as chief," Leskowak told the Tribune. "I chose not to stay on the roster after being removed as I want to move on and spend my time with my wife and son who have sacrificed time with me so I could serve the community."

Due to the board deeming Leskowak's actions "unsafe," Lauderman said, the board was permitted to remove him without a formal vote of the general membership.

Stivenson did not comment on the status of the department's repossessed aerial fire truck. Although the department no longer has the fire truck, it is still paying more than $1,500 a month on a $300,000 loan from the Office of the State Fire Commissioner (OSFC) Volunteer Loan Assistance Program it entered into in May 2015.

While payments are scheduled until June 1, 2035, Ruth Miller, communications director for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, confirmed last week the OSFC did not receive the Oct. 1 payment on the fire truck loan.

Stivenson declined to give contact information regarding the department's financial secretary, who Stivenson said would have information on the aerial truck.

Lauderman said he was still working to organize his department office and getting technology running again at the station. The recent department website, vtvfd.com, leads to an error message.

As for the future of the department, the new chief said he didn't expect anything but normal fire coverage since the volunteers on roster were mainly "seasoned veterans."

"We heard a lot of feedback from the community that they want their fire department," Lauderman said. "We came out of retirement to save this place."

The roster changes arrive shortly after news that Vernon Central Hose Co., Vernon Township's other volunteer fire department, has been given primary operational command for fire and rescue services for the entire township. Vernon Township VFD will provide QRS, or quick response service, for medical needs for its existing coverage area of the township and will assist Vernon Central on fire calls.

Township Manager Robert Horvat said the township generally stays out of what the fire departments do as organizations.

"The township doesn't get involved," Horvat said. "(The fire departments) do what they see fit. They have their own by-laws for selecting fire chiefs."

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©2019 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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