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First responders raise concerns over Washington County’s emergency services radio network

The Washington County commissioners approved the framework of a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the county’s emergency services radio system Thursday despite the objections from several first responders who spoke in opposition to the changes over concerns about its reliability.

The $22.545 million bid by Tait/MRA Inc./PMC Wireless was selected over a more expensive proposal from Motorola, which the first responders preferred because they thought it would allow for better communication over the current system that they said has proven to be troublesome.

Commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan and Commissioner Larry Maggi said they wanted to use the Tait/MRA system because there was a chance its VHF radio system could be compatible with the county’s current network, while also raising concerns about the cost of Motorola and the inability for that company to quickly implement it.

If a study shows the Tait/MRA system will work, the contract will be finalized and the upgrade will be paid using federal American Rescue Plan Act money. Irey Vaughan and Maggi said the 2026 deadline to use that ARPA money was a factor since they could not have assurances that the Motorola proposal could be implemented in time to qualify for those federal stimulus funds.

Irey Vaughan said they wanted to make a “significant” investment into the public safety communication system, and the Tait/MRA proposal came closest to the county’s $20 million budget. She added that the proposal must first be studied to see if the system will work with Washington County’s current configuration before it would be implemented.

“If (the current proposal) cannot work, we pull back,” Irey Vaughan said. “That’s what this is about. ... We sit here trying to determine what can we do, wanting to do something to help. This seemed like the logical first step to have this analysis done and submit this to the Treasury (Department).”

“Budget concerns drove this project and, again, either way it has to be approved by the (U.S) Department of Treasury,” Maggi added.

Irey Vaughan and Maggi approved the motion, while Commissioner Nick Sherman voted against it after unsuccessfully trying to get the decision tabled to delay it for at least a month.

“I don’t feel that we’ve had enough time to review this,” Sherman said. “I think that out of respect for the first responders that are here that it’s in everyone’s best interest that we look at this, and I don’t think another month will do any real damage to this project.”

Several emergency responders who lined the back of the meeting room – some of whom spoke during the public comment session – raised concerns before the vote.

While many of them praised the commissioners for trying to address the issue after implementing a select committee of first responders to review previous radio communication problems, the speakers said they didn’t think the current proposal from Tait/MRA would fix reliability issues. They were especially worried that if the system did not work properly, it would saddle the county with a long-term problem without fixing the current issues.

South Strabane fire Chief Jordan Cramer said when he previously worked as a firefighter in Peters Township, he noticed a major difference between that municipality’s individualized communications system that is separate from the one used countywide.

“It was a major shock when I came down to South Strabane and started using the countywide system as far as the quality and its complete inability for us to communicate while in emergency situations,” Cramer said.

He said there have been radio communication outages in the past, along with an inability at times to speak with nearby fire trucks that are approaching crash scenes. Cramer doubted the new proposal would make any meaningful changes since it comes from a subcontracted vendor of the current MRA system, and asked the commissioners to reconsider their plans.

“We are experiencing (communication issues) every single day and we need it fixed properly. We’ve learned over and over in the past decade that this radio system is subpar and it’s a public safety crisis in Washington County,” he said. “Continue putting a Band-Aid on a broken system with the same vendor that built one is a disservice to our county.”

Others said they didn’t feel like their concerns were considered after they reviewed numerous solutions trying to fix the radio communication issue while the committee convened over the last two years. The members of that committee who spoke during Thursday’s meeting said they disagreed with the commissioners’ decision and preferred to go with a different provider.

“I should be standing here today with a smile on my face and joy in my heart that we’re finding a solution to a problem we’ve had for decades,” West Alexander fire Chief Eric Graham said. “I’m standing here today with apprehension and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that we’re going to be going down the same road we have for the last 42 years.”

After the vote, the first responders filed out of the meeting and congregated in a hallway while spending several minutes discussing what the proposal could mean for radio communications in the county in the future. Most of them said they had few answers and couldn’t predict if it would work properly.

“Communications are a vital key to public safety, not just our own,” Washington fire Chief Chris Richer said after the meeting.

“What is next?” Richer asked rhetorically as he shrugged his shoulders.

Also during the meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved a bid from Hickory Telephone Company to extend 47 miles of broadband wiring to Jefferson Township, Canton Township and Taylorstown to provide high-speed internet to 383 residential and commercial customers. The $4.88 million contract will be split between Hickory Telephone and the county, which will pay $1.95 million of the cost using federal American Rescue Plan Act money.

The commissioners also agreed to have Washington County participate in five new proposed national opioid settlements with Teva, Allergan, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, although financial details were not immediately released.

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Local banks reassure customers following out-of-state bank failures

Local banking officials say residents should rest assured about the safety of their deposits in local community banks in the wake of recent failures in California and New York, explaining those failures were unique situations involving banking that catered to specialized industries.

Community Bank, Washington Financial Bank, and CHROME Federal Credit Union were among the banks that sent letters to their customers notifying them that those shutdowns will not impact their operations.

Washington Financial Bank President and CEO Michael Chaido said despite the national buzz, the impact of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in California and New York-based Signature Bank is non-existent here.

“This doesn’t affect us or our depositors, or anyone in Southwestern Pennsylvania at all,” said Chaido.

In the letter to customers, Chaido wrote, “The failed banks were heavily invested primarily in two areas: venture capital and cryptocurrency. Washington Financial is well diversified with respect to its account base. We have no exposure to the crypto markets and do not invest in projects in which there is a substantial element of risk.”

Regulators took control of the banks last week. The collapse of SVB, the nation’s 16th-largest bank, was the second-largest bank failure in U.S. history, while Signature’s was the third-largest.

Closer to home, banks are reassuring depositors their money will be there when they need it, and that the banking system, as a whole, is just fine.

They say area banks are on sound financial footing because they have a diverse base of local customers from a wide range of industries, and safer portfolios than the tech banks. If something happens to one area, it doesn’t impact the whole organization.

“I’d reiterate that deposits are safe, and we have well-run banks in Southwestern Pennsylvania with good leadership teams and good, stable markets,” said John Montgomery, President and CEO of Community Bank. “What happened with SVB and Signature has nothing to do with Southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Chuck Trump, President and CEO of First Federal Savings and Loan of Greene County, shared similar sentiments about the SVB situation.

“Silicon Valley Bank specialized in tech and venture capital banking that carries an element of risk far beyond any that small banking carries,” said Trump.

In addition, local bankers noted most of their bank’s depositors are below the $250,000 amount that is covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Most of Silicon Valley Bank’s accounts were over the $250,000 amount covered by the FDIC.

In its letter to customers, CHROME stated, “CHROME is federally insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Your accounts are protected by the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund and insured up to at least $250,000 per individual account.”

Chaido also noted that the failed banks had limited access to capital markets in troubled times, and in the case of Silicon Valley Bank, mismanagement of its investment portfolio limited its ability to liquidate securities to meet capital needs.

Washington Financial Bank’s statement said, “While Washington Financial Bank also maintains an investment portfolio, we are conservative in the management of that portfolio, particularly with respect to interest rate risks, so similar issues are mitigated.”

Community Bank’s Ben Brown, Executive Vice President, also noted that local banks have served the community for decades – Community Bank, for 123 years, Washington Financial for 124, First Federal of Greene for nearly 100 years, and CHROME for 52 years – and while they have enjoyed growth, they have avoided the explosive growth that contributed to SVB’s collapse.

“We have a good, stable bank here that grows at a stable pace and we don’t take risks. We grow at the right pace and a pace that makes sense,” said Brown. “We have 123 years of history here, through the Great Depression, world wars, dot-com busts and booms; we’re very comfortable with our stability.”

Apartments damaged in Waynesburg fire
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The Red Cross is assisting at least 10 people whose apartments were damaged by fire Thursday at 153 E. Lincoln St., Waynesburg, according to Jeff Marshall, chief of Waynesburg Franklin Township Volunteer Fire Company. Fire broke out at the structure behind the Waynesburg fire station about 3 p.m. No injuries were reported, but two dogs died in the fire. The fire marshal is investigating. Assisting were firefighters from Carmichaels, Center Township, Jefferson, Rices Landing, along with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office and Waynesburg Borough police.

Big banks create $30B rescue package for First Republic
Eleven of the biggest banks in the country have announced a $30 billion rescue package for First Republic Bank
  • Updated

NEW YORK – Eleven of the biggest U.S. banks Thursday announced a $30 billion rescue package for First Republic Bank in an effort to prevent it from becoming the third to fail in less than a week and head off a broader banking crisis.

San Francisco-based First Republic serves a similar clientele as Silicon Valley Bank, which failed last week after depositors withdrew about $40 billion in a matter of hours. New York’s Signature Bank was shuttered on Sunday. It appears that First Republic, which had deposits totaling $176.4 billion as of Dec. 31, was facing similar issues.

The group of banks behind the rescue package confirmed that other unnamed banks had seen large withdrawals of uninsured deposits. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures deposits up $250,000 for individual accounts.

Republic’s shares dropped more than 60% Monday, even after the bank said it had secured additional funding from JPMorgan and the Federal Reserve.

The rescue package brought back memories of the 2008 financial crisis, when banks collectively came to the aid of weaker banks in the early days of the crisis. Banks then bought each other in hurried deals in order to keep the crisis from spreading further.

The $30 billion in uninsured deposits is seen as a vote of confidence in First Republic, whose banking franchise before the past week was often the envy of the industry. The bank catered to wealthy clients, many of them billionaires, and offered them generous financial terms. The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got a mortgage through First Republic.

First Republic shares had been down as much 36% earlier Thursday, but rallied after reports the rescue package was in the works. The stock closed up 10%.

As part of the aid package, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo have agreed to each put $5 billion in uninsured deposits into First Republic. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs will deposit $2.5 billion each into the bank. The remaining $5 billion would consist of $1 billion contributions from BNY Mellon, State Street, PNC Bank, Truist and US Bank.

“The actions of America’s largest banks reflect their confidence in the country’s banking system,” the banks said in a statement.

Notably the banks came to the rescue of one of their competitors, while Silicon Valley Bank failed because its closest and most loyal customers – venture capitalists and start ups – fled the bank at the first sign of trouble.

“We are deploying our financial strength and liquidity into the larger system, where it is needed the most,” the banks said.

The nation’s banking regulators also issued a statement praising the rescue package.

“This show of support by a group of large banks is most welcome, and demonstrates the resilience of the banking system,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael Hsu, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg said in a joint statement.

The $30 billion bet on First Republic is seen as a bulwark against future bank runs. The shares of many midsized banks were hit hard this week as investors feared depositors would withdraw their cash and run to the nation’s biggest banks.

Over the weekend the federal government, determined to restore public confidence in the banking system, moved to protect all the banks’ deposits, even those that exceeded the FDIC’s $250,000 limit per individual account. While the banking crisis started with Silicon Valley Bank, regulators told reporters earlier this week that it became necessary for the government to backstop the banking system because it appeared more runs were possible.