Big Run firefighters starting to heal after alleged betrayal
BIG RUN — While the community of Big Run breathed a sigh of relief, the fire department was left at a loss.
Aug. 10, Punxsy-based Pennsylvania State Police arrested Anthony Overbeck, 18, a former member of the Big Run Volunteer Area Fire Department with arson.
Jefferson County District Attorney Jeffrey Burkett said charges against Overbeck regarding a rash of other arsons in the area are likely forthcoming.
While the arrest may have put residents of the Big Run community at ease, it likely caused much sadness for the members of the fire department.
Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann met with the members of the department to help them through this trying time.
Mann said this is a very difficult issue for the members of any volunteer or paid fire department to deal with.
Department members may feel betrayed since it was a fellow firefighter who was charged with setting the fires, and it gives them a black eye in the community that the fire department depends on for support, Mann said, adding that it's not uncommon for a volunteer fire company to feel the bite of something like this.
Mann said that his meeting with the company Tuesday was a chance for them to get some of its feelings out in the open.
"That's what this boils down to, it gives the entire fire service a black eye," he said. "Many of the volunteer departments depend on the donations from local citizens, and when they lose that trust, the department no longer receives the monetary support as it had been."
Mann said that he often compares the loss of trust in the fire department to when a police officer breaks the law, and it breaks that public trust.
"It hurts the entire organization, especially when the rest of the organization is dedicated to serving the public," Mann said, adding that there's a lot of emotion in the fire department that goes with the crime of arson.
Mann said he thinks that anyone who was arrested and convicted of the crime of arson should have the book thrown at them.
"If you're a public safety official, firefighter, police officer or EMT/paramedic and sworn to serve the public and you commit the crime of arson and you're convicted, you should have the whole darn book case thrown at you," he said. "There is a requirement of a background check for an individual who applies to be the member of a fire company, and they may also sign an affidavit stating that they've never been convicted of the crime of arson.
"That paperwork is only as good as or as honest as the individual that's filling it out," Mann said. "I've been asked before, ‘Maybe we ought to require a psychological test of all applicants?’
"Who is going to pay for that?" Mann asked.
Many of Pennsylvania's volunteer fire departments are struggling just to pay bills, Mann said, adding that volunteer departments have a hard enough time recruiting new members now, so what will recruits say when they have to go for psychological testing, too?
"If a potential candidate has never been involved with arson fires or were in trouble when they were a juvenile, those records are sealed and you're not going to find out anyways," he said.
Mann said that's why the arson task force was started out of his office several years ago, when the law was amended to require background checks or having a candidate sign an affidavit.
"When you do the affidavit you place the burden back on the applicant," Mann said. "When that applicant signs that affidavit swearing they have never been arrested or convicted of any arson related crime, that burden goes back on that individual."
"Sometimes that is the best a fire department is able to do in screening potential members," Mann said, adding that Tuesday's meeting with the members of the Big Run Fire Company is a good start in assisting its members to get through this tough period.
"My message to the public is, please don't paint the rest of the fire company with the same brush because of one individual," Mann said.
Overbeck, was arrested Aug. 10 by state police on arson charges regarding the fire at a home on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Jeffrey Burkett, Jefferson County district attorney, said that Overbeck was implicated in the other ten arson fires that have occurred since the fall of 2010.
So far, no other charges have been filed against Overbeck regarding the other fires.
Overbeck was a member of the Big Run Fire Company for only six months before he was arrested.