Volunteer firefighters intensify their rebellion Group demands that Haigley resign

May 30, 1993|By Kris Antonelli and John Morris | Kris Antonelli and John Morris,Staff writers

To County Executive Robert R. Neall, the county's fire service has too many chiefs.

His solution: demote all the volunteer chiefs to captain.

Now, the executive finds himself in the midst of a revolt. One and a half months after the county Fire Department issued the order, half of the volunteer commanders openly defy it by wearing their "chief" insignia and gear to emergency scenes.

That defiance appears to be filtering down to the rank and file.

Two weeks ago, two Glen Burnie firefighters disobeyed an order from a ranking officer in the paid service. Fire officials have barred them from responding to emergencies until a disciplinary hearing is held.

A volunteer lieutenant in Deale questioned a battalion chief's orders at a fire scene, then argued with him back at the firehouse. The lieutenant was temporarily stripped of his rank.

Now, the county's Volunteer Firefighters Association is calling for the resignation of Fire Administrator Paul Haigley, Mr. Neall's appointee as head of the fire service. Mr. Haigley, they say, is bent on replacing the volunteers with an all-paid service.

"Paul's main agenda is to get control of all the fire engines," said Capt. Chuck Rogers, chief of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Department and a paid firefighter in Baltimore County. "All they [the Neall administration] had to do was come in and let the people under them handle the fire department."

Change in spending power

During the administration of O. James Lighthizer, the previous -- county executive, volunteer companies were given free rein to ,, spend state aid, known as "508" money, and purchase new apparatus.

But Mr. Neall claims that the department was poorly managed then, with policies determined as much by politics as concern over public safety.

"Whenever they [the volunteers] didn't get what they wanted, they tried to achieve it politically, which makes them more of a special interest," Mr. Neall said.

"I don't have the luxury of throwing money around just to appease a political force," he said.

Mr. Neall said he appointed Mr. Haigley, a career firefighter, to streamline the department and better account for the money it spends.

The county finances much of the volunteer companies' operations, from liability insurance to equipment maintenance to pensions.

Although Mr. Neall said he has no intention of replacing the volunteers, whose labors save the county about $4 million annually, he complained that many of them act more like "independent contractors" than part of a single, county-run department.

Many of the volunteers "are still back in the 1950s and 1960s" when their companies operated as individual departments, Mr. Haigley added. "I'm an agent of change, and not everybody likes change."

Since 1991, Mr. Haigley has asserted control over the spending of "508" money, canceled an insurance policy that provided benefits in addition to workers' compensation for volunteers injured in the line of duty and required volunteers to get his approval before purchasing new equipment.

But the war of words, and some times lawsuits, between the two groups is by no means new.

In 1964, the volunteers opposed the county charter because it created a central fire department that they believed would strip them of their autonomy. They resisted the creation of minimum ** training standards for volunteer firefighters in 1975, as well as the creation of a chain of command in 1978 that made paid officers superior to volunteer officers of the same rank at fire scenes.

"In the words of Yogi Berra, 'It's deja vu all over again,' " Mr. Haigley said.

Bad blood

Volunteer leaders have sparred with Mr. Neall since the 1990 campaign, when he surrounded himself with advisers who favored a strong, centralized fire department built around paid firefighters and supplemented by volunteers.

To the volunteers, who have fought for 30 years to maintain the independence of their individual companies, the vision of Mr. Neall is anathema.

"We are all part of one department and we all work under the same regulations," Captain Rogers said. "But we should be able to control our own stations and districts."

That includes determining how money is spent and other matters that affect their companies, he said.

Mr. Neall contends that those responsibilities -- setting safety, equipment and training standards, and spending county tax dollars -- belong to the county, not independent, nonprofit corporations.

Leaving the allocation of state aid to the volunteers is subject to the power struggles between the 23 volunteers companies, said Mr. Haigley. Between 1986 and 1991, the bulk of the 508 money went to the largest of the volunteer companies.

Even if the volunteers raise the money through community donations for new trucks, the county must pay for radios, gasoline, insurance and annual maintenance, Mr. Haigley said.

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