Could the break between the Borough of Waynesboro and the Waynesboro Volunteer Fire Department actually enhance fire service in the town?

September 20 – It was almost a month ago that Waynesboro Borough Manager Jason Stains talked about the report from the PA Auditor General that showed issues with the compliance audit with the Waynesboro Fireman’s Relief Association. 

Since then, the Waynesboro Volunteer Fire Department has given notice to the borough that as of December 29, 2023, the volunteers will cut ties with the borough. 

A number of people have wondered if some kind of understanding could be reached, but that may not happen. 

Waynesboro Borough Council will have a meeting tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at 55 East Main Street. 

Lori McKendrick Depies, administration manager for the Waynesboro Volunteer Fire Department and involved with the department for 15 years, said, “Two years ago when the borough hired their current Fire Chief, I will say and speak for the company that at first they were very excited. They were very excited that we were bringing on someone who had a lot of professional experience, a lot of credentials and they really believed that this chief would work with them to elevate the volunteer and the career. But as those two years have progressed, the volunteers have realized that this fire chief really had in our opinion, no real interest in utilizing the volunteers as a supplement and complement to the small career force. We were excluded from training. Things just didn’t bode our way and we started to see the handwriting on the wall that perhaps the volunteers weren’t in a service delivery model that he was accustomed to, comfortable with and really advocating for the borough. We saw a service delivery model that he was going to do as a career only in the fire department and for us, that meant we wouldn’t be there.”

An ordinance in Waynesboro came out in 2012. 

Depies said, “There was a 2012 ordinance that did not mention the volunteer fire department or members then and then this was kind of reiterated back in an ordinance that was written just a few months ago. So we’ve seen this exclusion of the volunteers now for quite some time. Honestly, we believe that this disentanglement, as we’re kind of referring to it, is something that the borough wants as well. We would be very surprised if it wasn’t given the actions and kind of what we’ve seen over the last few months. Specifically, there was to be an MOU written and agreed to where the work was done this past summer on both sides, and the MOU conversations fell apart. The borough basically walked away from the table.”

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM noted, “It seems like the chief has the final say on both the volunteers, their participation, not necessarily organization and all the rest of that, but it all lies on the chief’s shoulders, yes?” 

“That is correct,” Depies agreed. “He had a choice when he came into his role to utilize the volunteers as a complement and a supplement to the career staff or exclude them and it became very evident through his actions that excluding them was his course of action. That’s what brought the volunteers just to a place of well, if we’re not wanted, we need to go. We’re not being utilized. So that’s where we are.” 

One issue in the report from the Auditor General were questions about what happened to some of the apparatus.  

Depies said, “The audit that you speak of was actually with the Relief Association and their funding that they get from the state and the Relief Association is separate and distinct from the fire department. The fire department is a 501(c)(3) and it’s separate from the Relief Association. They basically receive the money from the state and then they use it for – and only supposed to use it for – volunteer-related apparatus, equipment, training. The paid staff should not be using any of that equipment, but they are, and at times they’re breaking it and the borough’s not replacing it. So that’s another issue. But yes, we do have to talk with the borough about whether we will take our apparatus. It’s titled to us and we will take it with us when we leave the borough. We’re talking about the rescue engine, the ladder trucks and one of the engines. That will leave the borough with just one engine and a few career folks.”

The Volunteer Fire Department is no longer at the South Potomac Street station in Waynesboro. 

Depies said, “That is a borough owned facility, and we’re no longer there. But the Virginia Avenue Station is our property. That is where we’re housed for now.”

At the borough council meeting tonight, no action will be taken, but certain members of the Volunteer Fire Department and community will be there to speak. 

Depies said, “I think what the borough residents and businesses need to know and understand is that with the move that the volunteer corporation is taking to go with another municipality to be engaged with and affiliated with, this will mean no disruption of service to the residents and businesses of Waynesboro. In fact, honestly, we see the service improving because the volunteers will be much more engaged and much more ready to serve. So for us, we’re going. We think it’s actually going to be better for the residents of businesses when we make this move to another municipality. We’ll have a greater involvement.” 

Which municipality will it be? 

Depies said, “I think it’s premature to release that, but it’s going to be one of the municipalities that we already service. There’s a few in our area, and we’ve begun those conversations and they seem very receptive. So we think that by the time the December 29 date comes, we will be affiliated with another municipality within our first due area and we’ll be servicing the borough of Waynesboro, probably in a greater capacity than we are now because we’re not being utilized. That’s the big thing we want everyone to understand. This love of community, this passionate mission that we have, we want to continue with that. We’ve been around for 144 years and we really want to continue this. If we continue being affiliated with the borough under the authority of this fire chief, or any fire chief that they hire quite honestly because of the ordinance, we will lose. We will lose our mission and we won’t exist anymore.”

Ryan wondered, “Okay, so as I understand it, then there is no resolution. The break is here and the break is going to happen, period. If I get this right.”

Depies confirmed, “You do understand it correctly. Honestly, I’d love to hear differently from the borough, but I think really, this is okay with them and I think it’s okay with the fire chief. I think the volunteers being outside the authority of the chief and outside the borough is okay with them. So, we’re giving them what they want. We all believe that that’s what we’re doing. We’re giving them exactly what they’ve wanted.”

Quincy Township and Washington Township are two of the municipalities that could incorporate the Waynesboro Volunteer Fire Department. 

Depies said, “Either one of them could be in the mix and there could be others. We’ve begun some conversations with those jurisdictions and others and it is a short list, that is true. We’re just looking to be one of those companies that responds to Waynesboro in a first due capacity, in a mutual aid capacity, similar to what’s happening now. So who responds to the borough of Waynesboro? It’s Mont Alto, it’s Blue Ridge Summit, it’s Greencastle, it’s Leitersburg. We want to be one of those that comes to Waynesboro and services. Under this arrangement, we will be.”

Ryan asked, “But does it get messy here? If you’re not playing nicely, or the chief isn’t playing nicely with you or you’re not playing nicely with the chief and there’s an accident or an incident, is it Waynesboro, the paid firefighters and the paid department that determine the leadership role on scene? Does that turn into something awkward? You’re yelling at each other or there’s an uncomfortable relationship. What we’ve got here is we’ve got a fire or we’ve got an emergency, park all that nonsense aside. What do you think about that?”

Depies said, “We’ve had incidences happen over the last few weeks. There have been a few major fires, and accidents, and you know what? Whenever our volunteers show up, they act in a very professional manner. All of that is put aside for the betterment of whatever is happening at that moment. So that will not happen. It will be amicable. We will work together and I think everyone will be professional when it comes to public safety.”

How does the Relief Association work into this, especially with the audit? 

Depies said, “We have thoughts that I don’t want to really share on air about why the borough manager went to your station and talked about the audit. The audit really when it boils down and I’m a governmental accountant. I’ve been in governmental finance for years. So I understand these things. Our audit, the finding that we had was that our documentation was not in a format sanctioned by the state. It was a format problem. The apparatus and the equipment were all accounted for and we already had in process an internal control policy that yes, they wanted before and we had it as a finding this time and it’s all been sewn up. It’s all buttoned up. I’m not sure why the Relief Association is being pulled into this. They are a separate organization, but their audit was about a formatting issue of the documentation. It really was nothing about missing equipment. That had nothing to do with that.” 

After hearing what Depies had to say, attorney Clint Barkdoll said, “I think it’s over. The volunteers have made the decision they are leaving. There are no more negotiations. Sounds like there are active discussions for the volunteers to re-affiliate with another municipality, but they don’t reveal who that is. My guess is it’s Washington Township, because remember within the last year, Washington Township, and Waynesboro had this big dispute over the fees that Washington Township would pay to the borough for fire protection services and within the last couple of years, the Blue Ridge Summit fire station opened a substation fire station in Rouzerville. So to me, all of those pieces would fit together. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes. You won’t see any official action taken at this meeting tonight. I nonetheless think you’re going to see a big crowd there tonight, where citizens are going to get up and voice their concerns and opinions to Borough Council about this issue.”

Ryan said, “We’ve had the borough manager on in the early stages of this dispute, and unfortunately due to a technical glitch, the interview with Jason Stains, the borough manager, came into some disrepair. So these digital things happen to us every so often. We will do our level best to get Jason on Thursday morning after the meeting to get his thoughts and a recap of the meeting if he’ll allow us that. But to summarize what Jason was saying, I really can’t say much of anything. We’re there to listen. We’re not going to make any decisions and now there’s lawyers, plenty of lawyers, hot and cold running right now.”

Barkdoll said, “To put everyone at ease, I was struck, too, by the comments that regardless of where these volunteers land, and we don’t know officially where they’re going to land, Waynesboro Borough will still be within their service area. She was of the opinion and some of the other volunteers I’m hearing from are of the opinion that service might actually be enhanced by dis-affiliating with the borough. Hopefully that is true, by the way, but this is a very fluid situation and it’s going to continue to unfold over the next few weeks.”