Two months ago, the Hampstead Volunteer Fire Company was sued for more than a half-million dollars.
The lawsuit had nothing to do with saving lives, battling flames or helping people. The suit that seeks $700,000 in damages from the 34-member company arose from a fistfight at the fire hall, an altercation during a Saturday evening social event. Hampstead resident David B. Rambol II said the fire company should have prevented the fight.
In the Hampstead case, the hosting of that Nov. 11, 1989 dance at the fire hall could prove devastating to the fire company's finances.
The Hampstead company is the smallest of 14 volunteer companies in the county. The company's budget -- funded by the county and community donations -- is $180,000.
Carroll's fire companies provide fire protection for the county's 128,000 residents and their property, but who protects them?
Hampstead takes out insurance policies to guard against lawsuits, among other things. This year premiums cost $25,000, or about 14 percent of the budget. The money each company pays in premiums this year ranges from $13,500 at the 57-member Harney fire company to $32,500 at the 121-member Westminster company.
The 14 companies spent $340,240 this year on insurance, or 17 percent of the $1.9 million given them by the county.
Carroll's volunteer fire companies respond to hundreds of fire calls a year, but they rarely find themselves in court.
District Court records show that in the past six years only three fire companies have been sued.
One of the cases has been dismissed, Hampstead's is awaiting its first court date and the third is in dispute.
A handicap discrimination lawsuit filed against the 86-member Pleasant Valley company in 1986 was dismissed a year later.
In a second case, a former member of the Westminster company sued last January, when he was dismissed from the company after being accused of violating fire company bylaws, court records show.
The man, a former president of the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association, is seeking more than $2.1 million from the company, which has an annual budget of about $319,000. The suit says the man did not violate any bylaws and that his constitutional rights were compromised when he was dismissed from the company.
The Westminster fire company has been trying to get the case dismissed.
As recently as Oct. 9, Carroll County District Judge Luke K. Burns has denied the company's request.
While civil lawsuits are rare, concern over the cost of insurance is a big deal to volunteer fire companies.
Four years ago, the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Co. lost coverage on its two ambulances when the company that insured them for 15 years did not to renew the policy. That year, insurance premiums for the 14 volunteer companies rose an average of almost 50 percent.