Fire authority dispute seems resolved

March 24, 1995|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

Long-simmering differences over who controls the county's fiercely independent volunteer fire companies appear to be resolved.

County Executive John G. Gary yesterday said he has agreed to restore the position of volunteer company fire chief in return for the volunteer companies signing contracts spelling out the fire administrator's authority over their operations.

All volunteer officers will be equal in rank to their paid counterparts and must meet the same qualifications.

Mr. Gary and representatives from the paid and volunteer fire service resolved issues considered last year by an advisory panel appointed by then-County Executive Robert R. Neall.

"We're looking at what I think is a monumental accomplishment in restoring good cooperation between the volunteer firefighters and the paid firefighters," Mr. Gary said at an Arundel Center news conference.

In March 1993, volunteer station chiefs were demoted beneath paid captains by then-Fire Administrator Paul C. Haigley Jr. The volunteer chiefs had reported directly to battalion chiefs and had authority over paid captains.

After the demotions, the volunteer firefighters association demanded Mr. Haigley's resignation. Mr. Haigley took a position in Florida at the end of 1993.

The new contracts will give the fire administrator the ability to assign career personnel to volunteer stations and the right to inspect volunteer stations and fire apparatus. Volunteer companies also will agree to abide by fire department rules regarding readiness and emergency response.

The companies will retain control over their corporate affairs.

The fire administrator also will be able to transfer firefighting equipment from one station to another. Volunteer companies, which often buy their own fire engines, have resisted equipment transfers.

Now, each company can designate one station to which it will lend equipment and draft an agreement that spells out conditions of a loan.

All those issues were points of disagreement between the volunteers and Mr. Haigley.

Mr. Gary said the crux of the dispute lay in the lack of respect the previous fire administration showed toward the volunteers.

"We believe we have eliminated that," he said.

Mr. Gary's willingness to listen to the volunteers helped bring about the agreement, said Arthur L. Spencer, president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association.

"When Mr. Haigley was in command of the department, he dictated how things would be done. That's what caused the problems," Mr. Spencer said.

Under the agreement, the fire administrator must consult the volunteer companies before taking certain actions.

For example, if the administrator wants to assign a paid firefighter to a volunteer station, he will have to talk to the volunteer company commander.

"Now we have a contract that says we will do X, Y and Z," Mr. Spencer said. "It strengthens the whole organization."

The Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters, Local 1563, which represents the county's 550 paid fire personnel, has objected to the reinstatement of the volunteer chiefs.

"Fundamentally as a local we don't believe the county can delegate that authority to somebody outside the merit system," said union President LeRoy A. Wilkison.

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