‘The trust is gone’: Fallout in Darby Twp. after some firefighters’ racist remarks go public

Some say the tension has been there all along in the town, which is physically and largely racially divided. The recorded comments are proof, they say.

Listen 4:16
Briarcliffe Fire Company

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

It’s been about a week since the Briarcliffe Fire Company in Darby Township was slapped with a 30-day suspension after several of its firefighters were caught on a hot mic Jan. 27 making racist remarks about Black residents and Black firefighters in another local squad. They also mocked Fanta Bility, the 8-year-old Black girl killed last summer by three police officers from nearby Sharon Hill.

As the days have passed, Tim Eichelman, president and deputy chief of the township’s Goodwill Fire Company, has ruminated about why his squad felt it was important to put the racist tirade out there for the public to hear.

Eichelman says the nearly 2-hour-long audio recording is just the tip of the iceberg. Racist misconduct has been noticed within the Briarcliffe Fire Company for years, he says, and Briarcliffe has managed to skirt accountability for it.

“Letters have been written to the township before about their behavior, and their racist remarks, but there was no action taken because nobody ever heard it,” Eichelman, who is white, told WHYY News.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
The Goodwill Fire Company on West Cooke Avenue
The Goodwill Fire Company on West Cooke Avenue in Glenolden, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Darby Township is home to a little more than 9,000 people, 54% of whom are white and 40% of whom are Black, according to 2020 census data. Each of the municipality’s three fire companies — Briarcliffe Fire Company, Darby Township Fire Company, and Goodwill Fire Company — covers roughly 3,000 residents.

The municipality itself is made up of two parts with no common border — they are separated by other towns. The Briarcliffe and Goodwill fire companies cover the northern end, where most of the white residents live. The all-Black Darby Township Fire Company covers the southern portion, where most of the Black residents live.

“We’ve had issues where [Briarcliffe firefighters] didn’t want to run to the lower end because [what] they said to me was, ‘We don’t want to work with them, because of what we get,’ and I’m like, ‘What are we getting?’ ‘You know what we’re getting,’” Eichelman said of previous conversations.

Eichelman has been a firefighter for 20 years in several municipalities, but he’s only been living in Darby Township for five years. So it might be easy to write off his experience as that of a relative newcomer — if it weren’t for the fact that some lifelong residents shared similar experiences in interviews with WHYY News.

A Darby Townbship police car idles in front of the Briarcliffe Fire Company on Beech Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Richard Womack is the newest member of the Delaware County Council, but before taking up that post he was a member of the Darby Township Board of Commissioners. He said Darby Township has long had racial tensions, and added that there are obviously good residents in the Briarcliffe section of the township, citing some of their public responses to the racist comments heard on the recorded call.

But Womack, who is Black, said he has long heard rumors of misconduct at the Briarcliffe Fire Company.

“We never really had any kind of evidence of it. It was just kind of rumored that it was said, but they said showing up at fires, working together, sometimes when Briarcliffe would come down into the Darby Township [Fire Company] area, they would kind of stand back and say, ‘Hey, well, this is not our fire, we’re just here for backup,’” Womack said.

There were even concerns that Briarcliffe ambulances were not reaching their destinations in the township’s southern end in a “reasonable amount of time.” Womack emphasized that those allegations were hard to prove, and that he could only hope they weren’t true.

“But what happened the other day, I’d say it was an embarrassment. It’s a shame,” Womack said.

WHYY News reached out to the Darby Township Fire Company, the main target of the Briarcliffe Fire Company members’ racist rant, but the organization declined to comment at this time citing the pending investigation. “Remarks may be offered upon completion of the investigation,” the Darby Township company said in an email.

A call to the Briarcliffe Fire Company’s station went unanswered, and its Facebook page appears to have been deactivated. WHYY News also called Chief Dave Byrd, but did not receive a response. The company’s deputy chief, Harry Dipilla, declined to be interviewed.

In a statement reported by CBS3 and the Delco Times after the recorded call was released publicly, the Briarcliffe squad questioned the legality of being recorded without its knowledge.

“Even so, we take this complaint seriously and we are in the process of an investigation to determine the true facts. Anyone taking part in such a conversation will be subject to severe internal discipline that may include expulsion from the company,” according to the news release quoted by the Delco Times.

The racist tirade captured on tape

It all began with a meeting via video call on the evening of Jan. 27 to discuss fire services as a whole and the possible consolidation of the township’s three fire companies. Darby Township had asked for assistance from the state to review how fire services were being provided and had sought recommendations. The meeting was set up by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

Among those on the call were members of the fire companies and several township commissioners, as well as individuals from the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services. The meeting lasted for a little over an hour.

The township did not record the meeting.

Once the meeting concluded, many participants immediately left the call. However, Briarcliffe firefighters stayed on. They referred to the Darby Township Fire Company members in vile racist terms. The Briarcliffe firefighters also described their Black counterparts as lazy.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

They complained about Black people moving into the area, and how they are “taking over shit.” And they mocked the first name of Fanta Bility, the slain 8-year-old.

What the Briarcliffe firefighters did not know was that firefighters from the Goodwill Fire Company, including Eichelman, were still connected, and that audio from their conversation was being recorded.

In an interview, Eichelman said he had hooked his laptop up to the big screen in the Goodwill squad’s crew room with five of his fellow members, so they too could see the virtual meeting on Microsoft Teams. Briarcliffe had dialed in by phone. Eichelman stayed on the call because he assumed there would be closing remarks from Township Commissioner Marvin Smith.

After the meeting, Eichelman said, he and the others decided to start recording once they heard the first racist remark. They weren’t alone in listening in, he said: Smith had also heard the remark.

“Darby Township Ward One Commissioner texted me, he’s like, ‘What is going on?’ I said, ‘You’re hearing it with your very own ears just like we are. I’m telling you — this is not good,’” Eichelman said.

A Darby Townbship police car idles in front of the Briarcliffe Fire Company
A Darby Township police car idles in front of the Briarcliffe Fire Company on Beech Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Disgusted by the words of the Briarcliffe firefighters, Eichelman and some of his crew members delivered what they heard back to their company.

“We recorded it. There’s a lot of questionability about that, but it’s whatever. We had the data. We had the notes. We had the handwritten notes … I reached out to some legal experts. It’s kind of a gray area because there are stringent wiretap laws in the state of Pennsylvania … But there was also that gray area as well — they dialed into a public meeting, which they knew that there’s probably no reasonable expectation of privacy,” Eichelman said.

Eichelman added that the Goodwill Fire Company is considering retaining legal counsel.

He also said the Briarcliffe Fire Company members indicated that they could possibly be recorded during their rant. At the end of the day, Eichelman said, he and the rest of the company thought that it was important to get the recording before the public.

On Feb. 9, Goodwill Fire Company’s board of directors wrote a letter to the township commissioners that detailed the barrage of racist and offensive comments.

That same day, during their regularly scheduled meeting, the commissioners had an executive session to listen to the audio recording. Upon returning from executive session, the board passed a motion to temporarily suspend the Briarcliffe Fire Company and open an investigation. The probe is being handled by the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to comment for this story.

WHYY News reached out to the township commissioners, including Smith, and none offered any comment.

Commissioner Tamara Taliaferro responded but told WHYY News that the township solicitor would respond on behalf of the board. Solicitor Michael Pierce said there have been issues, not all relating to race, with all three of the fire companies over the 30 years he has been involved with Darby Township.

“If everything is accurate, I have no reason to believe that it isn’t, this type of behavior will not be tolerated by the township,” Pierce said. “The commissioners were unanimous in their decision to suspend pending an investigation. This is not something that we deal with or have dealt with on a regular basis. It’s very disturbing and very concerning to the township as a whole, and they will take whatever steps and recommendations are made based on the investigation.”

Eichelman said he can’t see himself feeling comfortable with those firefighters on the scene again.

“No. Not at all. Absolutely not … because of their racial epithets towards people and even some of the threats that they made directly to us as Goodwill Fire Company. It just would not be a conducive operation between them — not with the current leadership that’s in place,” Eichelman said.

He added that the current leadership would have to change before he would agree to any sort of merger or consolidation of the three fire companies in Darby Township.

“Their chief over there at the time … would take swings at us, push us around, he pushed me around a few times. He said, ‘If you keep getting in my way, things are going to get worse.’ I’m like, how’s that possible? And I’m like, ‘You can’t be acting this way on fire scenes.’ And so he’s like, ‘Well, call the cops. I’m protected anyway.’ Well, let’s see how protected you are now at this point,” Eichelman said.

WHYY News reached out to Darby Township Police for comment, but the office said Chief Michael Sousa was not readily available.

‘The trust is gone’

As the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office investigates the incident, some members of the public wonder how they can trust those Briarcliffe firefighters to step up during times of emergency now that their true colors have been revealed.

“The trust is gone. It’s going to be very hard to repair that relationship and to regain that trust,” Womack said. “I think the only way you’re gonna have to do [is] that you have to start with just cleaning house, that whole leadership would just have to go.”

Ashley Dolceamore is the co-founder of Delco Resists, a social justice group that has been active throughout the county. She’s also a Darby Township resident. Goodwill Fire Company reached out to her to read its letter aloud during the Feb. 9 township commissioners’ meeting.

Over the years, Dolceamore said, she’s heard plenty of stories about racist misconduct in various Delaware County fire departments.

“And what I heard about other neighboring companies was that nothing was done. Nothing would go public. It was kind of kept hush-hush. It was kind of one of those things where like, everybody knows it, but nobody’s doing anything about it. So when this came out, it was more of like a — finally. Finally, somebody may be held accountable for their hate speech,” said Dolceamore, who is white.

The Darby Township Volunteer Fire Co.
The Darby Township Volunteer Fire Co. on Hook Road. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Neighborhoods that are so segregated should raise eyebrows, she said. And she believes that the names and faces of the firefighters involved should be publicized.

“Not only that, I think that they shouldn’t be allowed to serve communities in any capacity. Whether it’s as a volunteer firefighter, or another form, where literally lives could potentially be in their hands. I don’t think that would be safe. And as far as the firehouse as a whole, unless they can clean house and get all new volunteers, then I think it’s best that they shut down,” Dolceamore said.

She hopes that this incident pulls the “wool” off the eyes of people who deny that this is a systemic issue. Dolceamore said it should make people wonder how often things like this are said but not caught on tape.

As for the reaction of some of her neighbors on social media, Dolceamore said she has been frustrated by the ways in which people have tried to change the narrative.

“So you’re telling me that you’re not going to address the fact that these white volunteer firefighters were disrespecting Black residents, Black firefighters,” she said. “They have the audacity to bring up a deceased child and laugh about her, and all you have to say in return is, ‘We support our firefighters.’

“To me, and I’m sure to many other people,” Dolceamore said, “that means that those people agree with the racist ideologies that those firefighters expressed, and that they will always blindly follow and support public servants no matter what they do — especially if it harms people of color.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal