One of Howard County's largest volunteer fire companies has been so racked by internal political strife in recent months that its members say they now only respond to serious fire calls -- leaving more routine calls to the station's career firefighters.
The turmoil at the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Company -- at Old Baltimore-Washington Boulevard and Montgomery Road -- came to a head last week when members of its 11-person board of directors requested that its president resign. In addition, two other board members and two chairmen of fire company committees have resigned recently as a result of the strife.
The morale at the fire station is "at an all-time low," says Robert Fadrowski, the board's second vice president and a volunteer firefighter for 16 years.
"I've been involved with the fire station since I've been knee-high to a grasshopper and I've never seen it this low," he says.
At issue in the internal dispute is the president's handling of the fire company's county-funded budget, which this fiscal year is $242,490.
That budget -- which is to be used for such things as uniforms, fire hall maintenance and equipment upkeep -- could increase by almost $50,000 -- to $289,900 -- next fiscal year, if approved by the County Council.
For residents in the Elkridge area, a critical result of the dispute is that the company's two-dozen active volunteers have not responded to calls as frequently as in the past, leaving less serious calls such as reports of small brush fires to the 15 career firefighters who work out of the same firehouse.
The strife within the volunteer fire company also has led to official concern about whether there's sufficient county oversight the private, incorporated organization -- which is almost entirely funded by the county.
Because of these problems, County Councilman Darrel E. Drown, who represents Elkridge, has asked the county's Office of Law to investigate what authority the county has over the county's seven volunteer stations, if necessary.
'Don't have the authority'
But James E. Heller, chief of the county's professional Fire and Rescue Services, says he ordinarily does not get involved with disputes over the leadership of the county's volunteer companies.
"I don't have the authority to get involved until someone tells me I can," the fire chief says.
He adds that he's had no complaints about the Elkridge company responding to fewer calls. But he acknowledges that the "internal struggle has gotten out of hand if it's impacting the service to the community."
Elkridge volunteers say they have been turning out for calls that require more than one engine -- those that are more serious and could be life-threatening -- but that they have not been responding to routine calls -- the "smells and bells," as firefighters call them.
'Picking and choosing'
"There may be some picking and choosing on which calls to go out on. We may let the career people take [an engine] out instead of us," says Elkridge Volunteer Chief Donald E. Watson.
Watson and some volunteers say the station's response to serious problems has not changed.
"The citizens are still getting the best service out of us as possible," Watson says. "When dealing with fire and rescue, we're dealing with people's lives."
Some of the 15 career firefighters say they aren't aware of internal strife at the firehouse and haven't noticed any picking and choosing of calls. Countywide, some career firefighters say, when a call goes out, they usually jump on an engine and head out without waiting for volunteers to join them.
But one career firefighter at the station, who asked not to be named, says: "There are a lot of things happening at Elkridge that I can't do anything about. I don't agree with what's going on."
The volunteer company's problems can be traced back to bickering within its board of directors, a situation Heller, the county chief, says is out of his purview.
Aside from annual budget reviews by Heller and the county auditor's office, county officials and the career firefighters have limited administrative authority over the county's volunteer companies.
"We work hand in hand" on rescue work, he says. "But operation of a corporation is off limits. We are prohibited from interfering."
In addition to Elkridge, six other stations exist in the county -- two in Ellicott City and one each in Clarksville, Savage, West Friendship and Lisbon. Volunteers can receive life insurance, workers' compensation benefits and a state tax credit in lieu of pay.
In all, the county spends about $1.4 million on its seven volunteer companies, and county officials maintain that the volunteers save the county money by lowering the number of paid firefighters that are needed. Howard has 175 active volunteer firefighters and 223 career firefighters.