Columnist

Chester County fire board discusses arrest of fire chief

February 24, 2014 

— There was talk Monday night by the board that oversees Chester County’s volunteer firefighters about the Feb. 15 arrest of a fire chief after a scuffle with the sheriff at a crash scene – but the group met in private and took no action.

The Chester County Rural Fire Commission, made up of eight members appointed by the Chester County Council, governs the county’s 12 volunteer fire departments. The commission gathered for its monthly meeting but went into executive session to discuss the confrontation between West Chester Volunteer Fire Chief Andy Martin and his brother volunteer firefighter Tommy Martin and Sheriff Alex Underwood and several deputies.

Andy Martin is a member of the fire commission and was its chairman last year, but he was not present Monday.

After a half-hour of closed-door discussion, the commission decided it – like the public it serves – doesn’t have enough information about what happened to do anything.

Commission Chairman Bobby Jones read a brief statement the commission adopted after its private meeting.

“We as the rural fire commission received information in reference to the Feb. 14 Haz-Mat vehicle incident on Highway 9,” Jones said. “We did not receive any information tonight that would require us to take action.”

Jones and the other commissioners declined to comment afterward. It remains unclear what action, if any, the commission could take concerning Andy Martin’s status as chief as the criminal case continues – and Chester’s infuriated fire chiefs consider legal action against Underwood.

The arrest and jailing prompted the fire chiefs in Chester County to hire a lawyer to ask the state Attorney General’s office to investigate Underwood’s handling of the incident.

John Agee, chairman of the county’s fire chiefs association, attended Monday night’s meeting but declined to comment beyond restating the group’s unanimous support for Andy and Tommy Martin.

After the Feb. 14 truck crash and fuel spill on S.C. 9 west of Chester, Andy Martin wanted sheriff’s deputies to close the highway to traffic. Deputies declined, citing a state trooper’s decision to keep the highway open until a wrecker arrived.

After being rebuffed, Andy Martin took to emergency radio airwaves to criticize the decision, making references to the 2016 election, when Underwood will be up for re-election.

Underwood and his top deputies went to the scene and an argument ensued. Deputies allege that Andy and Tommy Martin then pushed Underwood and scuffled with one of his deputies. The next day both firefighters were arrested on assault charges and jailed overnight.

The arrest has sparked a very public war of words, with firefighters questioning whether the sheriff should have been on the scene in the first place, and whether the Martins instigated the scuffle by hurling profanity and getting physical with deputies.

The Martins have a combined 83 years of service as volunteer firefighters. Their attorney, Dan D’Agostino, has claimed neither man should have been arrested and that Underwood should not have confronted them at the scene of a crash.

In arrest warrants and police reports, Underwood and deputies allege an irate Tommy Martin, 61, a former Chester County Councilman, pushed Underwood and grappled with another deputy. Police claim Andy Martin, 57, was belligerent and had a physical confrontation with a deputy who tried to remove him from the scene.

Andy Martin was handcuffed at the scene for about 10 minutes. Andy Martin has said he was treated like a “hardened criminal.”

Underwood has said deputies acted properly and assaulting a police officer will not be tolerated, regardless of who the offender is.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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