Demoted volunteer fire commanders defy county

April 20, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

The commanders of the county's volunteer fire companies are defying the county fire administrator by responding to emergencies wearing the fire chiefs' insignia, white helmets and white coats.

Administrator Paul Haigley demoted the volunteer commanders from chief to captain March 16 and ordered them to wear the appropriate insignia and red, color-coded gear.

The change pushed the volunteer chiefs below paid captains in the chain of command at an emergency scene.

It is the latest in a series of incidents that volunteers say have left them demoralized.

The volunteer firefighters thrive on the prestige of their jobs, explained Robert W. Ganz Jr., president of the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Department. Volunteers began dropping out in large numbers soon after Mr. Haigley proposed the policy change 14 months ago, Mr. Ganz said. At Earleigh Heights, the number of active firefighters has dropped from 67 to 40, he said.

Louis D'Camera, president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association, said the commanders of most of the county's 23 volunteer companies are continuing to use the chiefs' rank and firefighting gear, despite the orders.

Mr. Haigley has issued a warning to the volunteers that he will not tolerate disobedience and insubordination at a fire scene. But he can do nothing to stop the volunteers from wearing the chiefs' insignia, Mr. D'Camera said.

He could "tell them not to respond to an emergency, but that would be stupid," Mr. D'Camera said. "You're going to tell free manpower not to come out and fight a fire?"

Volunteer firefighters have protested that Mr. Haigley, who was appointed fire administrator two years ago, wants to replace them with an all-paid fire department.

Last week, hundreds of volunteers and their supporters picketed

the Arundel Center in Annapolis to support a resolution that asks County Executive Robert R. Neall to reverse Mr. Haigley's decision.

Louise Hayman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Neall, said the county executive supports the change as a way to "improve the safety and efficiency" of the fire service.

Capt. Gary Sheckells, a Fire Department spokesman, said the paid commanders are better qualified to take charge of an emergency because they must go through a competitive promotion process. The volunteer commanders are chosen by the firefighters in their companies and appointed by the administrator.

Captain Sheckells called the change a compromise. He said the paid firefighters union wanted the volunteer commanders removed from the chain of command entirely.

Other firefighters describe it as part of a power struggle between the county's 100-year-old volunteer service and the paid service, which was created by charter in 1964.

Mr. Haigley's "main agenda is to get control of all the fire engines in the county," said Chuck Rogers, chief of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company and a paid firefighter in Baltimore County. The volunteers own about 40 fire engines and ladder trucks.

Captain Sheckells said power struggles and vendettas played no role in the change in rank for the volunteer commanders. He said it was just "internal policy decision."

The volunteers point to Baltimore and Prince George's counties' fire departments to bolster their case. In both counties, at least some of the volunteer stations call their senior officer a "chief," spokesmen for those departments said.

Baltimore County Fire Chief Michael Whittaker said about half of the 33 volunteer stations call their senior officer a "chief." But a paid officer always commands a fire scene, he said.

In Prince George's, volunteer chiefs are integrated into the command structure and frequently preside over emergencies, said Prince George's spokesman Pete Piringer.

The controversy generated by the change in Anne Arundel is a matter of "bruised ego" on the part of the volunteers, Captain Sheckells said. "We're not trying to discourage them. We're trying to provide Anne Arundel County with the best possible fire service."

Kevin Walker, commander of the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company, agreed that the problem was "an ego thing" but said that "to provide adequate fire service, you've got to make your people feel good. The volunteers in this county have been doing that for more than 100 years."

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