Fire chiefs ought to remember parade's for the public

THE OBSERVER

June 14, 1992|By Mark Guidera

What's a community parade without fire trucks and firefighters?

Well, we're about to find out -- and we're about to see if anyone other than firefighters and their friends and families notice and complain.

The county's biggest public event, the annual Bel Air Independence Day Parade and fireworks, won't have any fire trucks or firemen in the march this Fourth of July.

The chiefs of all 13 volunteer fire companies decided last week to pull out of the parade, which easily attracts 40,000 to 50,000 spectators annually.

I'll explain the reasoning to you, and you tell me -- or better yet, tell the fire companies -- if you don't agree that they are shooting themselves in the proverbial foot here in the public's eyes.

The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company decided to pull out of the parade about a week or so ago because the chief, Steve Cox, didn't want to agree to limit the number of fire trucks his company could show off in the parade. In the past, the company had paraded everything it had -- about 15 trucks or so and about 70 volunteer firefighters.

Keep in mind, this is a parade that includes a plethora of marching bands, veterans groups, local politicians and numerous commercial floats -- about 100 different elements this year.

The Bel Air Independence Day Committee Inc., the volunteer organization that puts together all the events of the day, from the frog-jumping contest to the parade and fireworks, asked the Bel Air company to pare the number of trucks in the parade this year.

John Gessner, a lawyer and member of the committee, says that request was made because of of citizens' complaints that there were "too many" fire trucks -- almost 50 total -- in the parade and because of complaints that the parade had grown to be too long (two-plus hours).

The committee asked the Bel Air department to keep it to six trucks this year.

All other volunteer fire departments were limited to three trucks, but Bel Air, it was reasoned, should be allowed a few more since the town was the host of the big event.

Well, that didn't sit well the Bel Air department, so Chief Cox decided the company would drop out.

Soon after that, the county fire chiefs association voted to drop out of the parade too as a sign of solidarity with the Bel Air fire department.

L Sound like, "Waa, I want to take my toy and go home" to you?

Does to me.

The element of this tale that really rubs the wrong way is that this decision has the air of politics -- pull all of the fire equipment out of the parade three weeks before the event and make 'em sweat.

They'll cave in and give us what we want.

That doesn't reflect the spirit of volunteerism and community goodwill, which has always been the hallmark of the volunteer fire departments in this county.

Instead, it has the noxious air of elitism and sour grapes politics.

Eddie Hopkins, assistant chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department, says the decision to pull out of the parade was not made to bully the committee into relenting.

The main reasons the department dropped out, he says, were:

A.) Limiting the number of trucks would mean limiting the number of firefighters who could participate in the parade, and the brass at the department didn't want to make that call.

K? B.) The department gets only two events annually to "really

show the public what we have," says Hopkins. One of the events is the department's annual open house day, and the other is the parade.

Well, most everyone likes a parade, and most everyone likes to see fire equipment and show their appreciation for the valiant work firefighters do.

But the common man doesn't want to look at a lot of fire equipment. It's like going to a new car bonanza of some kind. Sooner or later, it all looks the same. The firefighters, as much as they might prize the equipment, need to get this into their heads.

And on the other reason -- giving the department a chance to show its stuff -- a reasonable man or woman might ask, "Well, what about having those who would like to participate walk in the parade in front of the the five or six fire trucks?"

The committee suggested just that compromise to Cox and Hopkins.

But that wouldn't do. It would mean that if there were a fire or other emergency, the walking firefighters might have trouble getting to the scene fast enough, said Hopkins. If they are on a truck, he said, they can just bolt the parade route (which, in fact, occurred last year).

Now, when the Marines are invited to participate in a parade, they don't send an entire battalion because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings by leaving them out. They work it out so a representation of the Marines as a whole participate. It's hard to see why the Bel Air department couldn't take that approach.

They should be mindful that the parade isn't for the benefit of the Bel Air fire department. It's for the public -- and, this year, to show appreciation for veterans.

Needless to say, many organizers of the parade -- all of them volunteers too -- are spinning at the news of the fire chiefs' decision.

They had thought the idea to limit the number of trucks a sound way to include firefighters in the July 4 bash while balancing citizen suggestions for improving it.

I guess a firefighter I talked to put it best.

"It's a sad situation," said Rick Ensor, a captain with the Bel Air volunteers. "I'm sorry for the town and the kids who come to the parade. They like fire trucks. It's a kids' parade."

Well, he's right.

But what a lot of people will think about this turn of events is that the firefighters are acting like kids. Spoiled ones.

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