Fire chief, volunteers at odds Haigley denies he's 'shut out' unpaid force

June 14, 1992|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Staff Writer

A week ago Wednesday, county Fire Administrator Paul C. Haigley received barely polite applause from volunteer firefighters receiving training awards during a banquet in Odenton.

"I want to thank you for that warm reception," he deadpanned tersely before he began presenting the certificates.

The moment of tension passed, but it was indicative of the depths to which relations among the volunteers and the head of the county's paid firefighting force have sunk in the 18 months since he was appointed.

They reached their nadir Friday afternoon when Roger Powell, lawyer for the volunteers, compared Haigley and county officials to "a thief in the night" as he argued for a court order to keep the government from spending a $370,000 state grant.

The volunteers have sued to get that money, which they say is rightfully theirs, and had asked for an injunction to freeze the money until the case can be fully argued. Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner refused Friday to grant that order.

Tom Tharp, a volunteer spokesman, said he was confident they would prevail in the end and complained that Haigley has systematically shut out volunteers since County Executive Robert R. Neall picked him to run the department.

"He's isolated the department from us," Tharp argued.

"I'm appalled," Haigley shot back. "I don't know what they're talking about. Nobody has bent over more backwards than I have."

"Our treatment has been like that of certain minority groups in Nazi Germany," huffed Mike Robinson, former chief of the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company. "Wherever he's been able to get his digs in, he's been doing it."

Among other things, the leaders of the county's volunteer forces complain that Haigley has:

* Rejected a 4-year-old study that showed ladder trucks should be in volunteer stations in Armiger and Ferndale and replaced it with one of his own that showed the trucks should in stations in Glen Burnie and Jacobsville, staffed mostly by paid firefighters.

* Twice ignored volunteer recommendations to spend an annual state grant known as "508 money" on trucks and chiefs' cars for volunteer companies. Last year, he spent the money for face shields for volunteer and paid firefighters, and this year he plans to buy a ladder truck for the Glen Burnie station.

* Canceled an insurance policy that provided benefits for volunteers injured in the line of duty in addition to workers' compensation.

In addition, they say, Haigley is preparing a new chain of command for fire scenes that would push volunteer officers down a rung lower than they are now.

"He says he's all for the volunteers, but every move he makes is negative. We think he's trying to put us out of business," groused Wylie Donaldson, former chief of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company.

Donaldson and the other volunteers say their problems with the chief stem from the administration of former County Executive O. James Lighthizer, when Haigley, then a rising star in the department, was placed in charge of special projects.

It was a job the volunteers described as "exile" from fire department headquarters in Millersville to an attic office at the Arundel Center North in Glen Burnie, where Haigley chafed at having little to do.

"When the Republicans got in and Paul was made chief, we knew a lot of paybacks were going to be made," Donaldson reasoned.

"Those people didn't do that to me," Haigley responded, shaking his head. "They didn't do me in."

Yet he also complained that the volunteers "got what they wanted, when they wanted it under Lighthizer."

All his moves since he became chief are recommended in the Neall transition team's report or are his own efforts to manage the department, he argued.

Among other things, the transition report called for changes in the way the 508 money is administered to give the county greater control.

And it suggested the chain of command system that Haigley is considering.

"It's all right here," he said, holding up a copy of the report.

The 4-year-old study on the location of trucks was "a crock" that was written to justify where volunteers already had placed trucks, he said.

The committee that drafted his study included volunteers, he countered. "It was an attempt to get some rhyme or reason for what was going on."

Canceling the insurance policy for the volunteers was a budgetary decision that he didn't make, but that he supports, he said.

"In three years, the county paid $105,000 in premiums and there were only $3,000 in claims against the policy," he argued. "It was looked on as way less than cost-effective when you're in a tight budget situation."

Besides, he added, the volunteers, their buildings and equipment, still are covered by the same insurance policy that covers paid firefighters.

"I have done nothing more than manage this fire department," he argued. "And when you manage something, there comes a time when you make some people unhappy."

But Tharp was not satisfied.

"If he were working as a true manager, he would involve us, but he's excluded us from the process," Tharp said. "We never get a written report from him, and when we do, it's a fait accompli."

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