Whitehall-Coplay Press

Monday, May 21, 2018

Fire chief is backed by assistants

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 by KATHY LAUER-WILLIAMS Special to The Press in Local News

Whitehall mayor says recent meeting showed support for Nelson

It was standing room only at the Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners meeting May 14 when firefighters filled the public meeting room to show their support for Whitehall Township Fire Chief David Nelson.

At April’s board meeting, several firefighters, who had left the department, blamed Nelson’s management style, which they said was causing low morale.

At the meeting Monday, four township assistant fire chiefs spoke during public comment in support of Nelson, saying morale is, in fact, high and policies he has enacted have improved the fire department.

Nelson became township fire chief in September 2016, after the death of longtime chief Robert Benner, and oversees five fire stations.

Mark Bilder, assistant fire chief for the Hokendauqua station, said Nelson increased the requirement for firefighter training hours by 15 hours to 80 hours, and, as a result, the number of township firefighters who have been certified to national standards has more than tripled. He said, in 2016, nine firefighters were certified. Last year, 29 were certified, and the goal for 2018 is 50 certified firefighters.

“Chief Nelson is trying to bring the department to the next level,” Bilder said.

Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Shambo said, under Nelson’s leadership, the department’s Insurance Services Office accreditation was lowered from 4 to 3, which could lower residents’ insurance rates.

“For a volunteer fire department, that is exceptional,” Shambo said.

Justin Benner, assistant fire chief of the Egypt station, said Nelson has brought higher efficiency and professionalism to the department. Under Nelson’s watch, the department has created a “rookie book” outlining expectations for new volunteers, is sending members to training seminars and increasing community engagement with programs like the “smoke detector blitz,” Benner said.

“The recent changes made in the fire department have been nothing but good,” he said. “We’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

Donald Kelly, assistant fire chief of the West Catasauqua station, said, despite having five members leave, the response to fire calls has increased by 8 percent.

“Anytime you have a change in leaders, you have turnover,” Kelly said.

Mayor Michael Harakal Jr. said a recent meeting he attended with the 10 assistant fire chiefs put any concerns he had to rest.

“Every one of them was very supportive of Chief Nelson and said nothing but positive things,” Harakal said.

The board also praised the department.

“We appreciate everything you do,” Vice President Philip Ginder said. “I have 100-percent faith in our chief and our fire department.”

In other business, the board passed an ordinance that will allow the fire department to seek reimbursement from residents’ homeowners and car insurance for some of the cost of responding to an emergency. The department will bill insurance companies through Pennsylvania Fire Recovery Services, based in Macungie, but will not seek more than insurances’ set fees, even if the actual costs are higher.

The board also approved partnering with Wildlands Conservancy, Emmaus, to apply for a state Department of Community and Economic Development grant to put in handicapped-accessible access from the parking lot to the Jordan Creek Greenway, as well as add signs and install a riparian buffer along Jordan Creek.

Commissioner Joseph Marx Jr. invited the public to attend a Memorial Day ceremony honoring veterans 10:30 a.m. May 28 in front of the township municipal building, 3219 MacArthur Road.

The board of commissioners’ next workshop meeting is 7 p.m. June 4 in the municipal building. The regular meeting is 7 p.m. June 11.