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Delco fire company accused of using racial slurs says it’s disbanding as activists demand more consequences

Darby Township's Briarcliffe Fire Company was suspended in February after members allegedly used racial slurs in a recorded video call.

Members of Briarcliffe Fire Company in Glenolden disbanded this week. The company was suspended by Darby Township in February after members were allegedly caught on tape using racial slurs.
Members of Briarcliffe Fire Company in Glenolden disbanded this week. The company was suspended by Darby Township in February after members were allegedly caught on tape using racial slurs.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

A Delaware County volunteer fire company, which was suspended in February after some of its members were recorded allegedly using racial slurs and disparaging Black residents, announced Wednesday it has voted to disband.

“Unfortunately in light of the frenzied public perception not based in fact, the Briarcliffe Fire Company can no longer function,” the fire company’s attorney Robert C. Ewing wrote in a letter to Darby Township commissioners. “Their members are volunteers who do not want to continue risking their lives if they are not appreciated.”

The Briarcliffe Fire Company served Darby Township along with the Goodwill Fire Company and Darby Township Station 4 — all operating on a volunteer basis. In late January, the three companies met in a videoconference with the township solicitor and commissioners to discuss a potential merger of the volunteer groups.

Briarcliffe members remained on the call after the meeting had adjourned and allegedly went on to disparage Black volunteers from the other fire companies and say it was time to leave the township because Black residents continued to move in. Members also allegedly mocked the name of 8-year-old Fanta Bility, a Black child police fatally shot outside a high school football game in Sharon Hill.

The Goodwill Fire Company sent Darby Township commissioners the recording in February with a summary of what Briarcliffe members said. Briarcliffe’s attorney disputed the summary in a statement Thursday, saying some of the comments were taken out of context and rejecting that a joke was made at Bility’s expense or that racial slurs were used.

Commissioners were not immediately available for comment Thursday, and township solicitor Michael Pierce said he could not speak to specifics of the recording because he hadn’t listened to it himself.

The firehouse’s abrupt decision to disband has introduced a new quandary for commissioners as local activists call for volunteers involved in the incident to face additional repercussions.

“I don’t feel Briarcliffe Fire Company should have been afforded the opportunity to step down,” said Ashley Dolcemore, cofounder of Delco Resists, an organization calling for members of the fire company to be barred from serving in similar volunteer roles elsewhere.

“If you’re that hateful, that’s not going to change just because you switched jobs.”

But it’s not clear whether the commissioners can do anything to prevent Briarcliffe members from taking other volunteer first-responder jobs in Darby Township, Pierce said.

“Each individual fire company has its own regulations at this time,” he explained.

Should former Briarcliffe volunteers attempt to create a new fire company under a different name — a move feared by activists — they would still need to come before commissioners for certification.

Upon being alerted to the recording in February, commissioners suspended Briarcliffe for 30 days. Commissioners laid out five conditions the firehouse would have to meet, including voting in new leadership, before the commissioners would consider recognizing them again.

Meanwhile, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer launched an investigation to determine if the comments captured in the recording amounted to crimes.

The DA’s investigation concluded the language was “truly hateful and deeply offensive,” but not criminal, Stollsteimer wrote to Pierce in mid-March. The investigation simultaneously dismissed Briarcliffe members’ claim that they were the victims of “a purported illegal recording.”

Activists had planned to attend a commissioners’ meeting Wednesday to demand Briarcliffe be disbanded. Ewing’s note beat them to the punch by a couple of hours.

For now, Pierce said commissioners are considering their next moves.

“At this point it’s moot,” said Pierce of a decertification vote. “We may revisit that if it becomes needed for some reason.”

Since the recording emerged, neighboring fire companies have been covering the areas Briarcliffe volunteers used to respond to. Pierce said that remains the plan until further notice.