Delco fire company is closed amid controversy over ties to extremist Proud Boys

KYW Staff
September 04, 2019 - 5:22 pm
Bon Air Fire Company in Haverford Township.

KYW Newsradio

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UPDATED: Sept. 5, 12:20 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A volunteer fire company in Haverford Township was shut down Wednesday after officials discovered one of its members was previously involved with an extremist group. 

The Bon Air Fire Company has been serving the community for 100 years, but the building now is vacant. Township officials found out in mid-August that a volunteer with the company had gone through part of the group's initiation process. 

According to the township, the group's website says members are "Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world," who also want closed borders. The group doesn't allow women or transgender men to join. 

A Google search of these ideas leads to the Proud Boys, a group that claims to fight for freedom of speech but promotes violence. The Anti-Defamation League says the Proud Boys are "overtly Islamophobic and misogynistic, and some members are also anti-Semitic and racist."

In an email to KYW Newsradio, an individual claiming to represent the Proud Boys wrote: "As a fraternal organization, we allow all men who share our values, regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation. In fact, our chairman is both black and Latino. We have always been a strongly anti-racist organization, with our bylaws specifically denying anybody who holds racist views." 

However, the Southern Poverty Law Center links the group to white supremacist ideology, noting that members and leaders "regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists." 

Investigation and justification

The Haverford Township manager and deputy chief of police conducted an investigation and met with Bon Air officials, emphasizing the seriousness of the matter to them. 

Police Chief John Viola said the firefighter in question attended two sessions with the Proud Boys. 

"He did some hazing with them. And then he stated that he tried to pull away from them a little bit, but he never said he resigned from them," Viola said.

Viola said the firefighter didn’t do anything illegal, but the Proud Boys isn’t what the Haverford community is all about.

"How they treat other people, what they think of other people, race, gender, creeds — it sows concerns," he said.

Township officials said the firefighter offered to resign, but the fire company's board didn't accept his resignation.

Since the fire company decided not to take action, the township manager ruled that the failure to address the matter conflicted with public policy, which calls for everyone to be treated fairly and equally. As a result, the township declared the fire company had to be shut down. 

By Thursday morning, Bon Air publicly defended its initial decision and explained why it kept the firefighter on board.

In a two-page statement posted on its Facebook page, Bon Air said the firefighter had "limited interactions with an outside organization," and that was no reason to get rid of him. The company said it responded to the situation and treated the firefighter like any other Haverford citizen: fairly and equally.

"The Township failed to identify a single instance in which that volunteer's services to the Haverford community were negatively influenced in any way by his brief association with the outside organization," continued the statement.

The fire company acknowledged the interactions but said the firefighter was never a part of the extremist group. Once the firefighter learned more, Bon Air says he stopped interacting with them, which happened more than a year ago.

Fire officials say they've known him for six years and he made no statements to other firefighters or on social media that show he was influenced by the group.

Community impact

Becky lives across the street from the firehouse. She said it has been a strong part of the community, and she and others aren't happy.

"I talked to my neighbors this morning, and they were like, 'Yeah, it's great having that fire company,' " she said. "Nobody wants to see that go."

She wished township officials brought the community together to discuss what happened before making a decision.

Some in the neighborhood say they’re worried about their safety. Fire service for Bon Air will now be provided by four other volunteer fire companies within the township. 

The fire company argued the community now has three fewer firetrucks and dozens of trained volunteers to serve during emergencies. As a matter of public safety, Bon Air says the township should reopen the firehouse.

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KYW Newsradio's Kim Glovas and Tim Jimenez contributed to this report.