A Delaware County volunteer fire company that put out blazes for more than five decades could not survive a raging public firestorm that engulfed members allegedly caught on tape using racial slurs.
The Briarcliffe Fire Company in Darby Township announced last week it was disbanding following public outcry over a recording that captured members making racist remarks about Black firefighters. They were also caught mocking 8-year-old Fanta Bility, who was fatally shot by three Sharon Hill Police officers last August following a football game. Those officers have since been fired from the police force and criminally charged.
The fire company was initially suspended for 30 days after the recording emerged. The Delaware County District Attorney’s office investigation found the members did not commit crimes as they were heard making incendiary comments following a Jan. 27 virtual meeting to discuss the possible consolidation of volunteer companies Briarcliffe, Goodwill, and Darby.
Firefighters from the other companies began recording after hearing Briarcliffe members make derogatory remarks. The Goodwill Fire Company in February sent township commissioners the recording and a summary of what Briarcliffe members said.
A local activist group publicly released the 94-minute clip as pressure mounted for Briarcliffe members to be barred from serving in other fire companies.
In a letter sent to commissioners hours before a scheduled decertification vote, the company’s attorney, Robert Ewing, said the company would cease operations over “frenzied public perception not based in fact.”
In an interview with the Delaware Valley Journal, Ewing claimed public outcry cost the company precious revenue streams, including a joint ambulance agreement, needed to maintain operations.
He said the matter could have been “handled differently” as an internal personnel matter. He accused Goodwill Fire Company, which has had poor relations with Briarcliffe (the former joined the neighboring company after being expelled from Briarcliffe) of fanning flames of division.
Township officials laid out five conditions the fire company would have had to meet in order to be recognized, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. They included electing new leadership, permanently barring some members from the company, and having all members issue public apologies for their conduct on the tape, Ewing said.
“They wanted everybody named, and then you have the state senator saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to go after people. It was all over the top,’” Ewing said. “Once there’s a public perception that the fire company is somehow racially discriminatory, and it becomes such a mantra that everybody believes it, then they have to shut down because nobody is going to support them. They’re not going to be able to raise money. They’re not gonna be able to do their job.”
The move leaves neighboring fire companies to handle calls that Briarcliffe members had responded to. Ewing said the company handled more than 3,000 ambulance calls just last year.
“It’s a big hole to fill,” he said.
Darby commissioners did not respond to requests for comment. The volunteer fire company’s chief, Dave Byrd, declined an interview request through his attorney.
In a lengthy statement, Briarcliffe members admitted making racially charged statements out of frustration that they claimed were “completely out of character.” According to reports, members joked that it was “time to leave” the area because more Blacks were moving in.
Members denied discriminating against “anyone based on their race,” using the N-word on the tape, or mocking Bility’s name by comparing her first name to the Fanta soda brand. They claimed many of their statements were taken out of context.
Bility’s family previously said it was appalled by the remarks and called for members to be further disciplined. The family’s attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr., said, “The Bility Family believes that the township acted quickly and decisively. It is a start. The callousness and overt racist behavior are very upsetting to them. They lost a little girl. A little girl, not Black or White, but sweet.”
The company attacked a former member who told WHYY he was responsible for recording the conversation. That firefighter, now a high-ranking officer at Goodwill, was convicted of misdemeanor indecent assault and corruption of minors, according to court records provided to DVJ.
“The members of Briarcliffe Fire Company did not want this member to be a member of the consolidated fire company,” members said in a statement. “The fire companies admit minors as members, and (they) felt these charges should disqualify him from membership.”