Briarcliffe Fire Company moves to disband after racist remarks go public

The Darby Township Commissioners’ meeting was supposed to discuss the possible decertification of the Briarcliffe Fire Company — but the squad beat officials to the punch.

Briarcliffe Fire Company

Briarcliffe Fire Company on Beech Avenue in Darby Township, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

All eyes had been on the Darby Township Commissioners since early February to see what their decision would be on the fate of one of their three fire companies.

Several firefighting personnel from the Briarcliffe Fire Company were caught on a hot mic back on Jan. 27 making racist and disparaging remarks about Black residents and fellow Black firefighters from a local squad.

They also made offensive comments about Fanta Bility, the 8-year-old Black girl killed by police officers in August 2021 in Sharon Hill.

The incendiary remarks that were made public by Goodwill Fire Company ultimately led to the Briarcliffe Fire Company getting slapped with a 30-day suspension from Darby Township Commissioners.

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Wednesday night’s Commissioner’s meeting was supposed to discuss the possible decertification of the Briarcliffe Fire Company — but the squad beat the officials to the punch.

Shortly before the meeting, Media-based attorney, Robert C. Ewing let it be known to the public that the Briarcliffe Fire Company had voted to disband itself.

In a more thorough press release sent from Ewing on Thursday, Briarcliffe said “public outcry caused by the Goodwill Fire Company’s actions and misinterpretations caused the termination” of ambulatory services with their squad which ultimately led to Briarcliffe pulling the plug on their own operation.

The press release also denied fire company members ever used the “N-word” or disparaged Bility in the tape that they allege “was recorded without their knowledge.” However, the statement does address other statements the company said were “taken out of context.”

“There were certain statements made out of frustration that were racially charged. The members of the Briarcliffe Fire Company sincerely apologize for those remarks. They were completely out of character,” the press release said.

While upset at an unexplained “ultimatum” from the township and a lack of an opportunity “to meet and explain,” the letter concluded by saying that the members of the company will cooperate with the township as it transitions.

WHYY News reached out to township solicitor Michael Pierce, but he was not immediately available for comment.

The Darby Township Board of Commissioners still held a tense meeting on Wednesday night.

Pierce told residents at the meeting that the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office found no criminal wrongdoing from Briarcliffe, but added that the “public outrage is appropriate, the comments are hateful and offensive.”

While the township initially followed up with Briarcliffe Fire Company through their attorney requesting the identification of members present at the meeting, a formal apology to residents, the removal of the members involved, a formal vote to establish new leadership, and the scheduling of a new meeting with new leadership, the demands were not met.

“Briarcliffe is non-operational within the Township of Darby as a recognized fire company,” Pierce said. “That apparatus will be dealt with when we look at the overall picture of fire services located within the Township of Darby for the entire township.”

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Two attendees from the meeting, Delaware County Councilmember Richard Womack and resident Ashley Dolceamore, said frustrations were running high.

“You had some of the residents that were happy about the decision, that you have those that kind of were not happy. So they felt like that it was a harsh penalty for them not still being served as that they were losing the fire company. But in fact, the township was already talking about merging, and only having two fire companies anyway, because they could not contain or continue to support three fire companies in a small area,” Womack said.

Darby Township is actually made up of two distinct parts with no common border — they are, in fact, separated by other towns. The Briarcliffe, alongside Goodwill, previously covered the northern end, where most of the white residents live.

The Darby Township Fire Company, which has an all-Black membership, covers the southern portion, where most of the Black residents live. The squad was the subject of Briarcliffe’s remarks.

WHYY News reached out to the Darby Township Fire Company and Chief Tim Eichelman from the Goodwill Fire Company, who brought the racist remarks to the township’s attention, but no one was immediately available for comment.

Womack has spoken to members of the Darby Township Fire Company.

“They’re very happy that this has been dealt with. They feel like that it’s a good start to maybe try to reorganize the fire company and for them to continue their services in Darby Township,” Womack said.

Womack used to be a Darby Township Commissioner, so he has been working with officials on solutions.

“They have adopted Upper Darby, to come in and service the northern part of Darby Township, which they have an office right there and Seacane, which is literally maybe like three or four minutes away,” Womack said.

The mutual aid agreement to allow for their area to have another layer of coverage didn’t stop residents from expressing their anger about the loss of the Briarcliffe Fire Company.

Dolceamore, who is also the co-founder of Delco Resists, a local social justice group that helped the Goodwill Fire Company bring the comments to life, couldn’t wrap her head around the frustration aimed at the decision to decertify Briarcliffe.

“The anger needs to be directed to the proper issue. Be angry that we have a shortage of EMS workers that are underpaid and underappreciated. Be angry that these hospitals are laying off the workers that we do have. Be angry that these members at Briarcliffe firehouse decided that it was a good idea to laugh and mock a dead child who was killed by Sharon Hill police officers, among all the other racist things that they said about the fire chief, about firefighters, and about the residents who live here,” Dolceamore said.

The one word that she used to describe what she saw was entitlement. She added that the mutual aid decision should calm any fears that emergency response times could lag.

“It puts everybody in the community in a tough spot, because sure, [Briarcliffe] was closer — but they’re also saying horrible things or racist things. So, should the Black residents have to feel scared that they’re not going to be given proper care? Absolutely not,” Dolceamore said.

Briarcliffe will be returning their fire trucks to the township.

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