Fire service changes draw Neall approval

April 15, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Robert R. Neall said the recommendations he received yesterday on changing the county's fire services should help ease tensions between paid and volunteer firefighters.

The 10-member Fire Department Study Committee recommended reinstating the position of volunteer fire chief and giving the county fire administrator more control over volunteer units.

Paul C. Haigley Jr., the county's former fire administrator, eliminated the position of volunteer fire chief last year.

Mr. Neall said he was "not averse to reinstating the rank of volunteer chief" if the task force's recommendations establishing the authority of the fire administrator over the volunteer companies are fully implemented.

"This is a balance-type thing. I think if you start cherry-picking ideas you'll upset the balance that these people so carefully crafted," he said. "It's useless to make the changes unless you keep the balance."

In order to have its volunteer chief restored, a volunteer company would have to agree to extending the administrator's authority. For example, the administrator could assign career personnel to volunteer companies at his discretion, and could move fire equipment to any location he believes best serves the county's emergency needs.

Stephen D. Halford is currently the acting administrator.

Letting the administrator move equipment particularly galls volunteers, who own some of their fire engines. They say that when the equipment has been borrowed, it has been returned dirty or damaged.

Mr. Neall praised the task force's ability to forge a compromise between the volunteers and the career firefighters.

"I don't think either side in this issue is running around dancing in the streets," he said. "I think they've done tremendous work -- the wisdom of Solomon."

The career firefighters don't like the change in command, but will accept it, said LeRoy A. Wilkison, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1563, which represents the county's 560 career firefighters and paramedics.

"We'll take issue with what they said about including the volunteer chiefs in the chain of command," Mr. Wilkison said. "We don't feel any of our people should be subordinate to a volunteer."

Mr. Wilkison praised the handling of issues of staffing and safety, particularly its recommendation that the county put at least three firefighters on its trucks and end the practice of sending equipment out with only a driver. The panel also recommended that the qualifications for career and volunteer firefighters of equal rank be the same.

Volunteers are "cautiously optimistic" about the commission's recommendations, after receiving assurances from Chief Halford, said Lt. Robert J. Schappert III, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association.

"We like working with Steve Halford," Mr. Schappert said. "Many of these positions and recommendations will certainly be negotiable, and an amicable result attained."

"We're going to try to lick this thing," he said. "This is an era of healing between the two groups."

Mr. Neall said he would try to implement the recommendations before he leaves office in December. Some will be included in the budget he submits to the County Council on May 2. Others will have to be adopted by the County Council or by charter amendment.

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