Budget plan upsets fire unit

Volunteer firefighters say all-volunteer fleet would hurt service

April 29, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Ferndale's volunteer firefighters are worried about the possibility of becoming Anne Arundel's only all-volunteer fire company - a distinction they say they don't want.

According to volunteers there, a proposal to remove six paid firefighters from the station could eventually force the closure of the company that's been in operation since 1942. The volunteers also worry that the plan could hurt emergency service in north Anne Arundel County.

Ferndale's volunteer president Jackie Olson said the majority of their emergency response is to other areas in north county.

"This will not only affect Ferndale," she said. "It will impact Glen Burnie, Marley and Linthicum."

County fire officials are considering creating an all-volunteer operation at the station to cut $500,000 from their proposed budget. Nearby fire stations could handle Ferndale's emergency calls if it came to that, they say.

But before the final decision is made, community leaders and volunteers plan to discuss the future of Ferndale tomorrow with county officials, including Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds Sr. and Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat.

"At this point, it's far from a settled matter," said Division Chief John M. Scholz.

The Ferndale station was proposed as an all-volunteer station in part because it has 85 volunteers - more than many of the county's companies. Although no studies have been conducted on whether the removal of paid staff would affect the county's five-minute goal for response, several other fire stations are nearby.

Under the proposal, the paid firefighters would be transferred to other stations with vacancies - saving the county from having to hire more firefighters.

County department heads were forced to find ways to trim their proposed budgets when County Executive Janet S. Owens abandoned plans to raise property taxes by 1.8 cents per $100 property value, which would have generated $6.8 million. Raising the county's income tax rate has not been seriously discussed as an option in preliminary budget talks.

"Now is no time to raise taxes," Owens said through her spokesman John A. Morris. "We have a national tax debate under way. Gasoline prices are up; heating oil is up; property tax assessments are up."

Olson said volunteers would fight to keep at least one driver at the station during the day. "Only six or seven of our volunteers are qualified to drive a fire engine. And they all work during the day. We could probably keep our ambulance running during the day with just volunteers," she said.

Of the 4,700 emergency calls handled by Ferndale each year, paid staff handles about a third, Olson said. Another third of the calls are handled by volunteers only. The remaining third of the calls are handled by a combination of paid and volunteer staff.

"Volunteers work during the day," Olson said. "We rely on our career staff to be there."

Ferndale volunteers also worry that if paid staff members are removed from the station, the station's operations budget will be cut in the future.

Such speculation might be premature, Olson acknowledged. "We have our fingers crossed that it won't come to that," she said.

At a meeting of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Association scheduled for Friday, Olson said she plans to ask for the support of the other volunteers in the county to help Ferndale fill daytime voids. She will also ask the group of about 500 volunteers to protest the proposal.

That volunteers will be fighting to avoid becoming an all-volunteer operation is a turnaround from the days when volunteers wanted autonomy. Historically, some contention has existed between the county's career staff, who wanted all firefighters in the county to be paid, and volunteers, who felt they were pushed out of their stations even though they have the same training.

But in Ferndale, at least, volunteers want the career staff to stay. "We work so well together," Olson said. "I don't think anyone really wants this to happen."

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