Backup volunteer fire corps in making

May 20, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

Anne Arundel County fire officials, faced with staff shortages that threaten firefighters' lives and lacking money to hire more help, want to create their own corps of volunteer reserves this fall.

Battalion Chief Gary Sheckells, a Fire Department spokesman, said the reserves would not replace existing volunteer companies but would give the paid forces more flexibility.

Volunteers, who think the program might be helpful, are leery that county recruiters will deplete their ranks.

"There's going to be a competition thing no matter which way you look at it. We're recruiting and they're recruiting," said Lt. Robert J. Schappert III, spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters.

He said he hopes county recruiters will not "be knocking on the volunteer station doors and saying we want to take your volunteers."

Deputy Chief Gary Rogers, who is running the program, said the volunteers need not worry.

"We are not looking to raid their memberships," he said. "We are looking to attract people out there with no affiliation with a fire company who are willing to serve their community."

In addition to helping cover staff shortages, the reserves may spare county fire officials the controversies over control they have had with the fiercely independent volunteers in the past.

"With this program, our members are loyal to this department, whereas with the volunteers, their loyalty is with the individual company which serves the county," said Chief Sheckells.

Members of the Anne Arundel County Reserve Fire and Emergency Services program would be trained and equipped by the county to serve as firefighters, paramedics, communications personnel, fire inspectors and fire safety instructors.

Although they would not be paid, they would be eligible for workers' compensation if injured on the job and would accumulate credit for the monthly payments given to volunteers with 25 years of service. They also may be provided with tuition assistance.

Acting Fire Administrator Stephen D. Halford told the County Council recently that he drafted the program to address recommendations made by a citizen advisory committee last month to eliminate dangerous staffing shortages.

The Fire Department Study Committee recommended that at least three people ride on major pieces of fire equipment in almost all situations and that the department should take immediate steps to prevent dispatching a fire engine with only a driver.

Fire union leaders say that they would prefer staffing shortages be filled by career firefighters, but that they realize this is impossible in the current fiscal climate.

LeRoy Wilkison, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters, Local 1563, stressed that the career firefighters, who respond to 70 percent of the emergency calls in the county, must be seen as the base of the fire service, with volunteers filling in where needed.

The Anne Arundel reserves are modeled on a program started five years ago in Howard County that has about 50 active members.

Volunteer fire companies in Howard expressed the same concerns then as their counterparts in Anne Arundel.

"The volunteer companies wanted to ensure there wasn't a mass exodus to become a corporate volunteer," said Rick Godfrey, a deputy chief in Howard.

To make the jump harder, Howard required a member of a volunteer company to quit that company to join the county's ranks.

Some volunteers switched, but not many, Chief Godfrey said.

Starting the program in Anne Arundel may not be difficult because Chief Halford is said to have a better relationship with the volunteers than did his predecessor, Paul C. Haigley Jr.

In addition, Chief Halford said he will hire a volunteer coordinator, who will start in January, to recruit new members for volunteer companies as well as for the reserves.

He also is turning to two volunteer companies to help deal with staff shortages.

In a 90-day pilot program that will start June 1, Chief Halford will allow two volunteer stations -- Odenton and Glen Burnie -- to completely staff certain shifts, freeing career firefighters to move to other stations that need additional people.

The first priority, he said, will be to send the career firefighters to stations that would otherwise be sending equipment out with only a driver.

Lieutenant Schappert said that the volunteers had offered to staff their own stations under Chief Haigley, but were rebuffed.

"Now Halford's taking us up on it," he said.

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