Fire chief fights to keep volunteer company He plans move to Dayton WEST COUNTY * Clarksville * Highland * Glenelg * Lisbon

January 28, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The way Chief John Poetker sees it, his volunteer fire department in Clarksville may be the next casualty of westward development.

"The central area of Howard County, where Clarksville is, is rapidly being absorbed by the growth of the Columbia area," Chief Poetker said. That means more fire calls than the volunteer company's 28 active members can handle.

It also means that the county, anticipating the fire and rescue needs of the fledgling Columbia village of River Hill, plans to build a new fire station in the next two to five years.

The station is intended to replace the 46-year-old structure owned by the volunteer department. Rather than work in a new station dominated by professional firefighters, Clarksville's volunteers see building a new volunteer station about three miles away in Dayton as the only way to maintain their independence.

"Clarksville and Dayton have been integrated as far as community services for years. It's very important to us to be geographically attuned to the community that we support," Chief Poetker said.

The county Department of Fire and Rescue Services, which has authority over all fire services in the county, would like the volunteers to work with paid county firefighters.

Chief Darl L. McBride, director of the county department, has asked Clarksville's volunteers to reconsider.

"I would rather them join with the county and form a partnership in the immediate Clarksville area," which would be a more cost-effective solution, he said.

The county director said he did not think fire protection would be compromised whether or not the Clarksville volunteer firefighters worked with their paid counterparts.

But joining up could mean giving up control of the 5th District Volunteer Fire Department in Clarksville, Chief Poetker contends.

He noted that three Columbia fire stations now staffed by professionals used to be volunteer stations. And, he said, that's not how the volunteers in Clarksville want to end up. Chief Poetker said a move to Dayton is not the best solution, but Clarksville volunteers don't think they have a choice.

"The best solution is to resolve the circumstances and come up with procedures and policies to coexist. Apparently, that solution is not available to us. We are operating with two sets of rules, supervisors, sense of self-worth and reality," he said.

County officials and volunteer departments have wrestled with the issue for years, but issues such as designation of authority and training requirements continue to create tension between the two groups.

"I think that employee-volunteer relations begin at the top," Chief Poetker said. The situation could be improved, he said "if the director of the Department of Fire and Rescue Services and county government would provide the management tools and supervision necessary to aid volunteer and career firefighters in getting along."

Despite his dissatisfaction with the way the county department is going, Chief Poetker said he's just trying to save his fire company, not rock the boat.

"We're not out to cause trouble, we're out to fit into what we were told was the existing plan."

But even that is a point of misunderstanding, if not contention.

Chief Poetker said county officials led him to believe that long-range capital budget plans called for a county station to be built in Dayton, which would have left the Clarksville company staffed with volunteers.

Chief McBride said a Dayton station had been included in a long-term capital budget plan that has since been scrapped.

"There was a wish list for future study beyond the year 2000," which included possible stations in Dayton, Marriottsville and North Laurel, he said.

While debate over the future of volunteer fire departments continues, Clarksville volunteers are looking for ideas at other volunteer stations, such as Mount Airy and Pleasantville in Carroll County, that fall within the $1 million to $2 million price range to build.

The volunteers think they can raise up to half of the money for a new station by selling the old station's 0.8 acre of prime property in downtown Clarksville, which will be a stone's throw from the future River Hill Village Center.

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