Haverford shuts down fire company over Proud Boys controversy
Township officials clashed with Bon Air Fire Company over volunteer's association with far-right men's group.
Haverford Township said Wednesday that one of its five fire companies had been “relieved of duty indefinitely” after officials were told by the organization that it would not dismiss a volunteer who admitted he had been in the process of joining the controversial far-right men’s group the Proud Boys.
“Given the fire company board’s failure to act, the township is compelled to take action,” the township said in a statement. “Effective by close of business Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, the Bon Air Fire Company has been relieved of duty indefinitely.”
Reached by phone, a representative of the Bon Air company, based at 541 Royal Ave. near Eagle and Steel Roads, declined to comment.
According to the township, the volunteer admitted to officials in mid-August that he had attended “several social gatherings” for the Proud Boys and passed two of the four steps in the initiation process, including hazing.
Steve D’Emilio, Ward 1 commissioner in Haverford, confirmed that the volunteer is Bruce McClay Jr., who held a leadership role at Bon Air.
“Listen, they represent the township,” he said. “Even though they’re a volunteer group, they represent the township. And you can’t have someone who represents the township belonging to any hate groups. You can’t have it.”
Efforts to reach McClay for comment were unsuccessful.
In a statement Wednesday, Township Manager David R. Burman did not identify the Proud Boys by name, but offered language similar to that on the Proud Boys website, including the description that each member is a “Western chauvinist” who refuses "to apologize for creating the modern world.”
Burman’s letter says the volunteer indicated that he had tried to distance himself from the Proud Boys in recent months.
On Aug. 14, Burman’s letter states, he and the chief of police met with Bon Air officials to make them aware of the seriousness of the issue and urge them to address it. And on Aug. 15, the letter continues, Burman was told by Bon Air that McClay had tried to resign, but that the company declined to accept his resignation.
On Aug. 22, fire company officials told the township they “found no basis” for dismissing the volunteer.
On the Bon Air website, McClay is listed as a lieutenant and vice president of the board of directors.
“It isn’t at this point about the volunteer,” Larry Holmes, vice president of the Haverford Township Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday. “When we became aware of the volunteer’s association with the Proud Boys, the township investigated it. The firefighter was forthcoming about it, and the firefighter resigned from Bon Air Fire Company. That was, as far as the township was concerned, the only actions that were necessary."
But when the fire company’s board refused to accept the firefighter’s resignation — and then pushed back on the township’s insistence that the firefighter be dismissed — the township decided it needed to take more drastic action, Holmes said.
“Today’s actions may stem from the firefighter’s association with the Proud Boys,” he said, “but today’s actions are a consequence of the Bon Air board’s reaction to the investigation.”
Holmes said Bon Air’s firehouse, in the southwest corner of the township, will sit empty and the township will take control of the fire equipment. The township said fire protection duties would be provided by the four other companies in Haverford: Brookline, Llanerch, Manoa, and Oakmont. All are within 2½ miles of Bon Air.
“The volunteer’s participation in an organization described as an extremist group and the Bon Air Fire Company’s failure to address this matter conflicts with the public policy of Haverford Township, which includes ensuring that all persons are treated fairly and equally, and that all persons enjoy the full benefits of citizenship,” the township manager said in his statement.
The Proud Boys, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a general hate group that espouses misogynistic, anti-Muslim, and trans-phobic rhetoric, has assembled with other fringe groups, most notably at the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Charlie Kelleher, who lives near the firehouse, said he was astounded by the news. He knows longtime members of Bon Air and noticed the company bringing in younger firefighters, though he didn’t know them, he said.
Kelleher said he was concerned about not being able to rely on Bon Air in an emergency. “Having it close by is worth it,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.