Rival Pennsylvania Chief: Firefighters Responding Drunk

DARBY BOROUGH, Pa.-- Borough Fire Chief Jason O'Neill not only fights fires, he's in a battle to crack down on alleged drunken firefighters at one of the borough's two fire companies.

Borough officials are investigating allegations made by the borough fire chief that firefighters from Darby Fire Patrol No. 2 have been under the influence of alcohol while responding to fires.

O'Neill recommended borough officials immediately order Fire Patrol No. 2 to cease/desist operations and amend the borough code to make Darby Fire Co. No. 1 the sole provider of Fire/EMS services within the borough. O'Neill is also fire chief of Fire Co. No. 1.

O'Neill in his recent letter said, "since their bar is legal, I see no other way to allow them to keep operating. As long as the bar is present they'll always be sending firefighters to the calls after drinking."

In a separate letter, O'Neill and his line officers outlined several recent incidents in which members of Darby Fire Patrol No. 2, Station 21, showed up at fire scenes with alcohol on their breath.

O'Neill said he is waiting for a meeting with borough officials regarding the allegations.

"It has been a longstanding problem and couldn't be tolerated by the officers and members of Darby Fire Co. No. 1 any longer," O'Neill said.

"I'm not the only fire chief in the area that has a problem with Fire Patrol No. 2," O'Neill said.

"We also have a zero tolerance policy for alcohol," he said. "And with the zero tolerance, once you've consumed alcohol, whether at home or at a bar, you're not permitted to respond to fire calls."

O'Neill said his fire company doesn't have a bar on the ground floor adjacent to the engine room like the other borough firehouse on Chestnut Street near Fifth.

"We have one in the hall, which is only open for private rentals and fundraisers" on the second floor, he said.

O'Neill said he has the support of his fellow officers and members. Fire Co. No. 1 on Quarry Street near Chester Pike has about 45 active firefighters and over 300 members on its rolls.

Borough Solicitor Raymond J. Santarelli confirmed that the letters had been received by borough officials and the police chief.

The borough is "in the process of looking into it and will take whatever appropriate steps are necessary to ensure the safety and health and welfare of the public," Santarelli said.

"We're going to do what we have to do," he said.

Borough Manager Mark Possenti on Friday also acknowledged receipt of the letters from the borough fire chief.

"It is a very serious issue," Possenti said. "And the borough is going to look into the allegations made by Darby Fire Co. No. 1.

"We hand-delivered a letter to Darby No. 2 yesterday (Thursday) and to their P.O. Box, trying to get their side of the story," he said.

Possenti said officials were still waiting for a response from Fire Patrol No. 2 before scheduling a meeting with O'Neill. "But we're not going to wait an extended period of time.

"Our first concern is the safety and welfare of the borough residents and we are going to move quickly on this issue," Possenti said.

Darby Fire Patrol No. 2 Chief David Rimel and board of trustees officials could not be reached for comment.

O'Neill sent letters dated Oct. 15 and Oct. 23 to Borough Manager Mark Possenti, Council President Janice Davis, Mayor Helen Thomas and Police Chief Robert Smythe titled "Serious Issues with Darby Fire Patrol #2" and "Fireground Problems."

In copies of the letters obtained by the Daily Times, O'Neill states that a three-page letter was drafted and sent to the board of trustees of the fire patrol regarding "members and officers under the influence of alcohol."

O'Neill in the letter asks the trustees to review the issue and "install a zero tolerance policy for consuming alcohol and attending fires." As of the writing of the most recent letter, they have not responded in any way to acknowledge the letter, the issues or "that their firefighters consume alcohol and go to fire calls," he states.

"This problem has been going on for many years and prior administrations chose to ignore it, however we are no longer willing to ignore it," O'Neill writes.

"The simple fact is that firefighting activities alone are inherently dangerous and then when you add alcohol to the mix it is a disaster waiting to happen," he continues.

In one letter, O'Neill says Darby Fire Patrol No. 2 operates vehicles and manpower under the influence of alcohol, which is a "liability for the borough, the residents, the borough officials and me."

They have been asked numerous times about attending fires after consuming alcohol and consistently deny the allegations, he writes.

O'Neill also pointed out that supporting companies of Collingdale No. 1 and No. 2, Yeadon and Colwyn are "also gravely concerned about coming into town here and helping us due to the dangerous actions of Darby Fire Patrol No. 2."

The time of day does not matter for these people because "they always have their bar open," he states.

O'Neill pointed out that the borough is responsible for insuring the fire patrol's vehicles "so that when they drink and drive it's the borough's insurance that is taking a hit."

He called the fire patrol "more of a social club than firehouse, thousands of tax dollars are given to that firehouse annually, but they offer little or nothing for fire protection to the borough."

He added that for most of the calls they handle with two or three members, "this is by far dangerous and then when you add the possibility of being intoxicated you have to ask what service are you really providing."

Copyright by the Delco Daily Times 2006.

Republished with permission of the Delco Daily Times.