Bressler, PA, Fire Co. Remains Shuttered Amid Racial Discrimination Probe

May 10, 2024
The Pennsylvania attorney general's office is investigating after Friendship Fire Company officials refused to give a Black man an application.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office has reopened its investigation into the Friendship Fire Company in Bressler, a fire company recently shut down due to allegations of racial discrimination.

The allegations included a March 16, 2024, incident where a Black man entered the Swatara Township department’s social club and asked for an application for the fire department, but was sent away empty-handed.

That incident launched an investigation by a five-member panel that ended May 2, after which the township commissioners voted 3-0 to suspend indefinitely the Friendship Fire Company from service. As part of the inquiry, investigators talked to about 30 witnesses and turned over their findings to the AG’s office, where they will continue digging into other matters, such as financial discrepancies.

During the preliminary investigation, township investigators found evidence supporting racial discrimination. While some firefighters made a distinction that those issues were happening mostly at the social club, the social club and fire department are the same legal entity and are run by the same board of directors.

As long as the fire company and social club share the same board of directors, exist as one legal entity and receive funding and support from Swatara Township, the panel recommended the fire company remain suspended. Before the suspension, Swatara Township covered all necessary expenses for the fire company to operate — utilities cost around $20,000, but insurance, fuel and other expenses inflate that number. The fire company possesses more than $1 million in township assets.

The panel cleared 11 firefighters to continue service at other fire departments, but it recommended suspension for five board members responsible for overseeing the fire company and social club’s board.

The situation is not only being looked at by the attorney general’s office. The Department of Justice is apparently conducting a parallel investigation that might extend beyond the Friendship Fire Company.

Indeed, when Swatara Township Commissioner Tom Connolly emailed the Dauphin County commissioners asking them to take action about the voting precinct at the firehouse, he copied an FBI agent on the email.

The panel created a report of their findings obtained by PennLive that detailed how a Black resident from Swatara Township found the social club and attempted to join. He told investigators he was driving home with his wife when they noticed the Friendship Fire Company’s club door was open.

They had previously driven past the club numerous times and never knew what it was about, so they stopped this time, according to the original complaint letter.

The man introduced himself to the bartender, a member of the club who oversees membership, and asked for an application. However, the bartender replied, “We aren’t accepting new members,” according to the complaint.

But that’s not true, according to the report. And Joe Cibort, a member of the fire department’s board of directors, told PennLive recruitment has never been closed — a statement corroborated by numerous firefighters.

For someone to become a firefighter at Friendship Fire Company, two members of the fire department have to sponsor the person, according to Cibort. Then, one of the members has to deposit the application at the fire department. Outsiders cannot independently submit applications, according to Cibort.

Only one applicant to the fire department has been rejected in recent memory, according to Cibort, who has served on the board for 56 years.

Racial discrimination has been brought up before, in 2020. That year, a 35-year firefighting veteran and club member alleged the Bressler station had a policy of allowing only white people to join the fire company and its social club.

That investigation ended in a letter from the AG’s office telling the social club to update its bylaws and website to include non-discrimination statements. The attorney general’s office declined to share its full findings with Swatara Township, so the township had to investigate the fire company and social club itself.

According to that investigation, a person from outside the fire department told the panel in 2021, they asked a firefighter if the fire department would be open to accepting Black firefighters. That firefighter told them it would “never happen,” according to the report.

The club bartender manages membership applications, according to one firefighter. The firefighter in the 2021 investigation said white people usually require two signatures on a card to join. But Black prospective members are told applications are not being accepted, or they simply never receive feedback.

A former firefighter, who was accepted as a social member within the past few years, needed two signatures to join. He told the panel a Black man who attempted to join the club years ago was denied without explanation.

That firefighter said the board seldom rejected any application that made its way up to the board. But many applications never got that far because members made it more difficult for Black people through additional hurdles, according to the report.

Those anecdotes come from a club created with bylaws that explicitly forbid Black people and women from becoming members. It’s unclear how recently the bylaws were updated to remove those restrictions. One firefighter told investigators he heard the bylaws were changed only in the past 10 years to allow people other than “white males” to join.

Another firefighter said the bylaws changed in the 1980s, but a third firefighter believed it did not change until 2019. The bylaws were not included in the report, and PennLive was not able to independently get a copy.

Cibort said he has been a member of the fire department board of directors over the past 60 years. He said he could not pinpoint when the organization changed the bylaws.

Several firefighters who talked to local investigators attempted to distance the fire company from the social club, despite the two being legally connected.

“People have different feelings at the club than at the firehouse,” one firefighter said, according to the report. “None of these people with different feelings are active firefighters.”

In fact, one firefighter told the panel the fire company “‘helped’ a firefighter ‘find his way out’” of the fire department after that firefighter made remarks about Black men.

“Racism is not welcome within the walls of our station and never has been. Cultural diversity is welcome with us at the FIRE COMPANY, regardless of what people at the CLUB do,” that firefighter said.

Cibort told PennLive he thinks the social club had two Black women as members and that Black members of other clubs come and play darts. When asked why the social club does not have more Black members, he said, “I don’t know. They are all who applied.”

Two firefighters said the fire company has tried to legally separate from the social club numerous times, but every time it comes to a vote, the social club stacks the meetings with its members so they can remain together.

One firefighter told the panel they once asked in 2020 why “No trespassing” signs were being put up at Cibort Park, just down the street from the firehouse. A longtime member of the Bressler Club told the firefighter it was because he “doesn’t like Black kids messing things up,” the firefighter said.

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, one firefighter suggested closing the firehouse’s social hall to use it for another purpose. But the idea received “a lot” of negative feedback, according to the report, because the social hall at the firehouse is used to rent space to Black people, who were not allowed to rent space at the social club.

Although the township’s investigation has been closed, a separate, parallel investigation is still ongoing at the attorney general’s office, according to Connolly, a commissioner involved in the township’s concluded investigation.

Connolly said the AG’s office investigation might look at revoking the club’s liquor license, seizing property, padlocking the club, seeing if the club violated its charter, and more depending on what its investigation turns up.

Meanwhile, the AG’s office acknowledged the swift action of the board of commissioners.

“Congratulations on the Board’s courageous vote last night, one I’m sure no one wanted this to have come to,” Corbett Anderson, chief deputy attorney general, wrote in an email to township commissioners May 2.

Cibort, meanwhile, said to the best of his knowledge there is no discrimination happening at the fire department. “I don’t see what’s the big deal,” he said.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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