Friction heats up within fire departments

August 09, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

Volunteer fire fighters in Anne Arundel County bristle at the mention of the career fire administrator's name. They've gone to court to get money they say he has taken from them, and loudly voted no confidence in him at a recent meeting.

It is part of a 20-year history of tension between the paid and volunteer forces that now seems to be getting worse.

"If we can't sit down at the table and discuss things, it's going to be a bloody fight," said Frank Tremel, chief of the Galesville Volunteer Fire Department.

The antagonism is not unique to Anne Arundel, but fire officials in other metropolitan counties with mixed paid and volunteer forces say they have worked out their differences.

"We're always going to have some kind of colliding, but it's minimal," said D. Ray Wilkerson, president of the Howard County Volunteer Firemen's Association.

It is difficult to determine how best to defuse the tension because fire departments in other counties have devised different solutions to their problems.

In Baltimore County, for example, the paid and volunteer forces are kept separate. Volunteers maintain their own stations and pay for most of their costs through their fund-raising activities.

They've also had more than 100 years to iron out their differences. The volunteers were organized in 1878; the first paid firefighters were hired four years later.

Anne Arundel County had only a few paid firefighters until 1965, when the large, career fire department was established under charter government.

While volunteers in Baltimore County raise their own money, those in Howard rely on the local government for most of their money and equipment purchases, and each volunteer station is staffed with paid firefighters.

This isn't to say Howard hasn't had its problems. Paid and volunteer firefighters once squabbled over where mops should be hung in the fire stations. But tensions have subsided in the last year.

"For the most part, there's been an effort to work together," said Douglas Levy, vice president of the Savage Volunteer Fire Department.

Montgomery County is unique because it has no county fire chief. It leaves its fire protection to 19 volunteer companies that operate 33 stations with the help of paid firefighters.

Officials there credit comparable training standards with helping quell dissent. Although career firefighters have chafed at taking orders from volunteers, they know that those volunteers have received the same minimum of 160 hours' training mandated by the county's Fire Rescue Commission.

While training standards are similar for paid and volunteer firefighters in Anne Arundel, Fire Administrator Paul C. Haigley is considering changes to the chain of command that would push volunteer officers farther down in the pecking order.

Anne Arundel volunteers say the change demonstrates a lack of trust in the volunteer chiefs and would weaken the volunteer system.

In the other counties, volunteers often are in command at fire scenes. The highest-ranking officer in Montgomery County is a volunteer, and the first chief on the scene is in charge.

Volunteer chiefs are equal to battalion chiefs in Prince George's County and outrank them in Howard County.

Baltimore County's volunteer chiefs hold the rank of captain, as they would in Anne Arundel under Mr. Haigley's plan. But under the Baltimore County system, the first officer on the scene is in charge.

In addition to the chain of command, Anne Arundel firefighters are arguing over the distribution of about $370,000 in state grant money, called 508 funds.

The volunteers have sued over Mr. Haigley's decision to use the money to buy a ladder truck for the Glen Burnie station, rather than put it toward trucks at Armiger, Arnold and Avalon Shores volunteer stations and chief's cars at others.

Previous fire administrators generally honored the volunteers' requests.

Montgomery County firefighters settled a similar dispute there several years ago by establishing a method of channeling volunteer company requests to the County Council through the volunteer association and the Fire Rescue Commission. The council makes the final decisions on the use of the money.

In Baltimore County, one-third of the 508 money goes to the career stations and two-thirds goes to the volunteers. The Volunteer Fireman's Association decides how to spend its share.

Officials say that such intangibles as communication and personalities are as important as the structure in determining how smoothly a system operates.

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