The Fire Feud Continues

August 03, 1994

It is no surprise that once more the County Council has wimped out by not letting voters make an important decision about their fire protection.

On Monday, three council members, enough to kill the issue, again refused to put a charter amendment on the ballot spelling out what the charter already says: that volunteers are part of one county fire department, subject to the authority of the county fire chief.

Politically, it was a smart move by Ed Middlebrooks, David Boschert and Virginia Clagett. It is not a smart move for the county.

Volunteer and career firefighters have been sniping at each other for 30 years, a conflict that stems from the volunteers' longstanding belief that, except at fire scenes, they don't have to abide by anything the county fire department says.

The volunteers' pride and independence usually serve citizens well. But in this case those qualities are detrimental because they impede the county in managing fire department resources effectively.

Voters could have settled this matter in November if the council had shown a little courage. Instead, the confusion and contention will continue at least for another two years, until the next election. (It's impossible for supporters to petition the amendment to this year's ballot; the deadline for collecting 10,000 signatures is next Monday.)

Volunteers say they merely want a delay until a new executive and council give them more opportunity to state their case. But don't for a minute believe they will be more willing to behave like an integral part of the fire department than they do now. Their goal clearly has been to deep-six this amendment, and the citizens' study on which it is based, in hopes that new elected leaders will toss it away.

The winning candidates, however, must take up this issue. This firefighting feud is not getting any less bitter. Sooner or later, the friction is going to cause trouble at a fire scene. The refusal of volunteer companies to abide by department policies, loan equipment and submit to station inspections already prevents the county from fulfilling its charter-driven obligations to taxpayers.

Perhaps the new council and executive can handle this emotional issue more delicately and successfully than outgoing Executive Robert R. Neall, whom the volunteers have never liked. But those elected in November must deal with it.

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