Nagging Questions About Volunteers


December 20, 1992|By MIKE BURNS

Last week's column cast a critical eye over the Great Joppa Mulch Fire in November that smoldered its way into the annals of Harford County firefighting.

Among the issues I raised were:

* Why did it take so long -- three months after the fire was first reported -- to get firefighters and government agencies to do more than just consult with, and refer to, the agricultural extension service, the clearly overwhelmed owners of the pile?

* Why did it require such a massive last-minute assault on the long-evident problem, launched on a Saturday night that was rainy, foggy and windy? Could there have been better advance planning to tackle the problem in daylight, with pre-staged equipment?

Hovering over these questions was a broader one: Whether an all-volunteer fire protection system can best meet the needs of a growing and more urban Harford County.

I know that the merest suggestion of criticism of volunteer fire companies is certain to attract lightning, just as the dead pine on the mulch pile did last summer, causing the whole commotion. It did.

Several readers, in response, praised the unselfish contributions and the professional training of volunteer firefighters, deserving of the county's undying gratitude. They found the column's questions insulting to the basic integrity of anyone who has ever attended a ham supper at a volunteer fire house.

Bob Thomas, the deputy state fire marshal, stated that no paid career fire department would have responded more capably or any differently than the volunteer companies of Harford and the surrounding counties that helped out.

Let me agree that fire volunteers make a great contribution of time and energy in providing a valuable public service. In this case, they put out what was the first big mulch pile fire in Maryland; there was no lingering "stump dump" stigma, as in Baltimore County, which has a paid staff.

But the reliance on the all-volunteer system has some potential shortcomings, too. As Harford rapidly evolves from a largely rural county to a developed, urbanized one -- with lots of bedroom commuters who don't work in the communities where they live -- such questions will continue to arise.

Among these questions are:

* The lack of a central, full-time Harford County command of fire fighting operations. When a fire breaks out, the local volunteer chief first on the scene makes decisions on personnel and equipment that affect the entire county and beyond. The emergency operations office only acts as dispatcher. There is no central county staff for planning.

* Availability of volunteers. Yes, paid career firefighters take vacation and get sick, but their shifts are covered in advance. You can't convince me that a businessman/volunteer chief in the middle of an important sale or a key staff meeting is going to race out the door at the first siren.

How many fire houses in Baltimore, for example, could you call during the day and have the duty officer say he won't see the chief for three days or so because their shifts don't coincide?

* Reliability. Recall that the Harford chief at the mulch fire called for a volunteer company in Baltimore County for help. But the fire company members were drinking at their annual banquet, unable to answer the call. At least one Harford volunteer chief departed the mulch fire -- a seven-alarm emergency -- to go on a planned vacation.

Mr. Thomas explained that volunteer companies are large enough to assure a timely response by at least one senior officer to a fire, and that volunteers often work shifts at stations to be on the first truck when the alarm sounds.

Yet most volunteers still race to the firehouse, creating a potential traffic danger and taking more time to respond than a paid career unit.

Some neighborhoods are acutely aware of the problem: One Harford volunteer company argued against closing a road where speeders menaced the residents, arguing that volunteers needed the road to rush to the firehouse.

The issue of excessive exuberance is, certainly, a delicate one. Volunteer smoke-eaters have to bring enthusiasm and courage to their task. It's an exhilarating avocation. But neighbors of firehouses find that the frequent sirens to summon volunteers is less than exciting.

* Independence of fire companies. There's lots of cooperation, but each governs its own activities. The volunteer fire associations have limited control over their affiliates. Each company raises its own funds, which can produce some pretty intense pressure on neighbors who must rely on volunteer protection.

Paid sheriff and police departments are fully accepted by citizens; no one wants a volunteer militia raising funds for law enforcement.

Of course, county government loves volunteer fire companies. The price is right. The county pays for some equipment and upkeep, but the volunteers raise the rest of their funds. A minimum-level paid career department for Harford County would cost at least $4 million, meaning higher taxes. And the volunteers remain a powerful lobby for their civic hobby.

Other metro counties have moved toward mixing career and volunteer firefighters and companies, to meet changing conditions and needs. Admittedly, this mixing causes some problems. But there is a full-time fire administrator or chief, who is answerable to taxpayers and paid to oversee county firefighting needs.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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