Latrobe Mayor Rosie Wolford, during Latrobe City Council’s regular meeting Monday night, took the opportunity to address lingering questions surrounding the recent suspension of several volunteer firefighters from the Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department (VFD).
Wolford read the following statement aloud:
“I want to let people know what happened and I want to explain to everyone that the reason we didn’t say too much at the last meeting is we were still getting the facts and getting the details.
“The Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department notified the city of discrepancies in some reporting procedures surrounding federal grants. The Latrobe fire department had a meeting, to my understanding ... and they were advised of the issue. The fire department made the decision to lock down (Goodwill Hose Co. No. 1).
“Representatives from the city met with leaders from the fire department, and following that meeting, the Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department leadership were advised they should follow their internal procedures regarding their members and their appropriate disciplinary procedures. Co. 1 was reopened. Some members were suspended.
“That matter now rests with the fire department and their internal procedures. The City of Latrobe has no authority to discipline individual volunteer members of the fire department, and any further questions surrounding this matter should be referred to the Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department. At this time, this is not a city issue.”
Two Latrobe volunteer firefighters who were suspended — Nico and Devin Giovannagelo — last month sought answers from council regarding the recent suspensions.
A temporary suspension of operations at Goodwill Hose Co. No. 1, located at the corner of Oak and South Alexandria streets in the city’s First Ward, was implemented on Dec. 2, and lifted a few days later. Both Wolford and Latrobe Fire Chief John Brasile said in the aftermath that the city’s fire protection coverage wasn’t compromised by the decision to suspend the station.
After the suspension at the station was lifted, several firefighters remained under suspension. City officials did not reveal how many firefighters were suspended, but Nico and Devin said last month that they were two of seven impacted.
Some firefighters present Monday night seemed to indicate that an investigation determined that the allegations against the suspended firefighters were unfounded, but officials provided no immediate confirmation.
Brasile, who was absent Monday because of an illness, according to Wolford, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Bulletin late Monday night.
Also on Monday, Nico and several other volunteer firefighters indicated that an in-house vote recently was taken to oust Brasile, although it wasn’t immediately clear which members of the department voted or how the vote was conducted.
Wolford noted that despite the vote in question, the fire department’s members do not have the authority to remove Brasile from his post.
“The council code states that the fire chief is appointed by council and only council has the authority to remove the chief,” she said, immediately asking acting solicitor John Greiner to confirm that was indeed the case.
“That’s correct,” Greiner said.
Wolford said a report of “potential fraud with a grant” was what spurred the fire department’s decision to issue suspensions.
“Numbers were changed ... on reporting for a grant we had already secured,” she said. “My understanding, in my investigation, is the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant is a federal grant by which firemen are given a yearly stipend if they respond to 15% of the fire calls. ... The report was printed and it was sent to the grant managers, and a week or two later, when the report was looked at again, those numbers had changed. That caused the discrepancy and that’s what caused the issue to be raised.”
According to firefighters present at Monday’s meeting, the SAFER grant is administered to area fire departments through Hempfield Township’s fire department and the Latrobe VFD is just one of multiple departments in a group that receives funding through this arrangement.
Wolford noted the Latrobe VFD had an election in December and re-elected Brasile as chief, shortly before the vote to remove him reportedly was held. She said that if firefighters want to elect a different chief, they need to go through the proper procedures internally in the fire department to make that happen. Firefighters present Monday claimed that the name of someone who opposed Brasile in the election had been removed from the ballot before voting took place.
At one point, Wolford asked Latrobe VFD assistant chief Mike Skapura if, at a meeting of the VFD’s operations officers just before Goodwill Hose Co. No. 1 was suspended, he had asked Nico Giovannagelo about the numbers that were changed on the report for the grant.
“I asked him twice and I didn’t get an answer,” Skapura said.
Wolford said city officials had seen documented proof that some of the numbers on the report were changed.
Nico Giovannagelo, who previously noted that he serves as captain of Goodwill Hose Co. No. 1, said that as captain it was his job to handle logs for the report and that there is “no stipulation on when or where” that occurs, indicating that there was a delay in completing the work because members of Co. No. 1 did not have access to the software used to prepare the report in the early months of last year.
One member of the audience Monday night, Chris Blessing of Latrobe, claimed that Brasile “claimed to be at calls that he was not at” and asked Wolford, “If we don’t get justice from within our department when we make a decision, and we don’t get justice from council ... where do you suggest we get justice from, when we know our chief, who accused our members of doing it, is doing the exact same thing?”
“If you guys have some documentation to support it, I suggest you take it to (your assistant chiefs),” Wolford said, noting that if such documentation exists, she would like to see it as well.
“If you have allegations that someone may have altered the grant numbers, I suggest you contact the grant manager,” Latrobe Police Chief John Sleasman said, offering to provide contact information for the manager in question.
“As far as council is concerned, unless the chief has done something fraudulent or whatever, we’re not going to remove him,” Wolford said.
Blessing asked if Wolford had spoken to anyone from Co. No. 1 as the situation regarding the suspensions was developing to “find out the other side of the story,” and Wolford said she had not, as she had spoken to Brasile about the matter.
Another firefighter present Monday claimed that at a meeting of the Latrobe VFD’s operations officers just before Goodwill Hose Co. No. 1 was suspended, Brasile “said council (was) pushing his hand to suspend the station.” Skapura was asked to confirm that Brasile said that, as Skapura was present at the meeting of the VFD officers.
“I don’t think he said ‘council,’” Skapura said, drawing an uproar from some members of the audience and catcalls from some who labeled him a “liar.”
Wolford said she would shut the discussion down immediately if people could not be respectful toward each other while discussing the matter, and again reiterated that “council did not make the decision to suspend Co. 1.”
“Our department head is telling us it’s you, you’re telling us it’s him,” Nico Giovannagelo said.
Wolford said that although council did not make the decision to suspend the station, it does have authority to go in and shut down a station if it thinks there is a need.
“Based on the information that I had at the time, I think the fire department did the right thing by suspending to find out what was going on,” she said.
Wolford urged the firefighters to go through the proper channels within the department to try to address the issues at hand.
“You’re making yourselves look bad,” she said. “I’m telling you, it’s a bad example to be setting in the community that you guys are fighting amongst yourselves. You’re trying to get us to step in and fight this fight for you.
“I have tremendous respect for the fire department and what you guys do. You guys put your lives on the line everyday and protect us ... (but) you guys have your own bylaws, you have to solve your problems.”