A fire and rescue commission is recommending that Howard County continue to use a combined system of career and volunteer firefighters, despite a hot rivalry between the two groups.
The commission, whichhas been meeting since March, was appointed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker to study the escalating tension between the opposing factions and propose solutions.
Volunteers and career personnel often staff the county's 10 fire stations together and perform many of the same duties during emergency calls. Career members, however, handle nearly all of the department's administrative duties.
Although commission members said in their final report last week that they support the volunteers and their struggle to exist in a career-controlled system, several volunteer leaders criticized the commission at a meeting Thursday.
"None of your recommendations address the real problems we have faced," said Douglas A. Levy, president of the Savage Volunteer Fire Company.
"We have had officers on both sides who ignore orders. We have had graffiti on our bulletin boards and bickering over things as ridiculous as where we store our mops and brooms," Levy said. "In our company, the volunteers were once even accused of absconding with funds."
Other volunteers said they felt that their members were in danger of being phased out of the fire and rescue service in favor of career personnel. The department consists of roughly 400 volunteers and 200 career employees.
"The preservation of the volunteer fire service in Howard County must receive more than lip service from the various commissions . . . if it is to survive in the not-too-distant future," said John J. Poetker, chief of the Clarksville volunteer fire department.
The commission, chaired by attorney William I. Weston, recommended in its report that the fire director "should continue to recognize theuniqueness of the volunteer fire service when setting policy and procedure."
The commission also proposed that the county impose a single-rate fire tax rather than the current disproportionate fire tax.
Howard County residents now pay a fire tax that ranges from 16 cents to 23 cents per $100 of assessed property value, depending on the residential district. The commission proposes that all residents pay the same rate for fire service. That change would produce about the same amount of money, officials said.
A single-rate tax is preferred because "providing fire and rescue service in this county is no longer a district-by-district operation," the commission report said.
Other recommendations were that the fire and rescue services director's office be paid out of the county fire tax rather than the generalfund, and that money be provided for training for career and volunteer firefighters.
Weston said he was pleased with the commission's final report, adding that it was unfair for volunteers to label the commission as biased against them.
Fire and Rescue Services Director Darl R. McBride said after the meeting that he supports the combined system of volunteer and career firefighters.
The key issue facing the fire service, he said, is to reduce the tension between the two. Next spring, he said, he plans to have a "fire service retreat," inwhich he wants "to get both sides together, identify the issues and hammer them out," he said.