Volunteers flare over red insignia Fire administrator softens stance

April 28, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Anne Arundel County Fire Administrator Paul Haigley is not ready to take "hard-line disciplinary action" against the commanders of 10 volunteer fire stations who are still wearing their white color-coded chief's insignia and gear to emergency scenes.

The commanders of six volunteer fire companies have complied with the county fire administrator's order to exchange their gear for the red color-coded captain's helmet and work coat, a fire department spokesman said yesterday. The commanders had been ordered to make the switch by April 15.

"This is not an easy change for certain volunteers, but we're confident they will be supportive and come into compliance in the very near future," Capt. Gary Sheckells, a department spokesman, said.

With Captain Sheckells saying the volunteers would be allowed "transitional" time to adjust to the change in the command structure, the administration is taking a softer stance than it did a week ago. Then, Captain Sheckells said flatly that Mr. Haigley would not tolerate "any disobedience or defiance" by the volunteers at an emergency scene.

Mr. Haigley, who has the power to establish the fire department's chain of command, eliminated the rank of volunteer chief on March 16, demoting the commanders of the volunteer companies to the rank of captain. Captain Sheckells said the move was designed to clarify roles within the department, since the commanders of paid companies already are called captains.

The county Volunteer Firefighters Association, which represents about 1,400 volunteers at 23 companies, voted last month to defy Mr. Haigley's order. Volunteers have argued that they are incorporated by the state and their bylaws establish the rank of their elected officers.

Captain Sheckells did not identify which of the volunteer station commanders were now wearing the red captain's gear. But several station commanders yesterday confirmed they still are responding to emergencies as the chief of their volunteer companies.

"The point is, we're wearing the gear we feel is rightly ours," said Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Chief Gerard Britton. "Our company is 75 years old, and we've had a chief throughout our history."

Kevin Walker, chief of the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company, said Mr. Haigley's order affects other volunteer officers as well. With chiefs demoted to captains, assistant chiefs and captains have been demoted to lieutenants, and lieutenants to ordinary firefighters. The changes have affected two lieutenants at his station, Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Walker said one lieutenant was threatened with arrest by an administration official if he continued wearing his insignia to emergencies.

Despite political pressure from the volunteers, including a massive rally in front of the Arundel Center in Annapolis two weeks ago, County Executive Robert R. Neall has backed Mr. Haigley's decision.

The fact that some volunteer commanders are defying Mr. Haigley's orders reinforces his belief that the volunteer companies have never accepted the fire administrator's authority, Mr. Neall said. Volunteer firefighters were among the chief opponents of charter government, which brought a central fire agency with it, in the mid-1960s, he noted.

"Because they do whatever they want, they have taken themselves out of the chain of command."

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