Fatal fire rekindles volunteer debate

Some urge paid firefighters for fast-growing Harford County

January 23, 2007|By Josh Mitchell and Mary Gail Hare | Josh Mitchell and Mary Gail Hare,sun reporters

A fire that killed five people last week has revived a debate over the need for paid, full-time firefighters in Harford County, the biggest jurisdiction in Maryland with an all-volunteer force.

"The time was five years ago" to hire professional firefighters, said Patrick Longo, a Montgomery County career firefighter who lives in Abingdon and has long lobbied local officials to move to a paid force. "You have too much population for volunteers to get it done."

The fire Thursday killed a married couple and three of their grandchildren in their 100-year-old house in Abingdon. Officials are still trying to determine the cause of the fire, believed to be the deadliest in county history.

FOR THE RECORD - A Page 1A article yesterday misstated which agency will review fire service response times in the Abingdon blaze that killed five people last week. The Harford County Fire and Emergency Services Association is handling the review as part of its summary report on the incident.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

No one has said that a professional fire department would have prevented the deaths in the blaze, which spread quickly. But the incident has refocused attention on public safety in a fast-growing county that is expected to add thousands of people in coming years, primarily because of the national realignment of military bases.

Harford County, home to about 240,000 people, is one of two counties in the Baltimore region served solely by volunteer firefighters. Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties are served by a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters, while Carroll has an all-volunteer force.

More and more governments are considering adding paid professionals to fire-rescue teams, particularly in fast-growing areas, national experts say.

"The number one thing needs to be, are the firefighters competent? Are they providing safe services?" said Dave Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council. "A volunteer could have all the training of a career individual or a volunteer could potentially have less, depending on what the department wants to require of them."

Typically one obstacle in hiring paid officers is cost. In Carroll County, where a similar debate has been under way, estimates on converting to a professional fire department exceed $20 million.

Harford County hired part-time professional emergency medical responders last year to augment its volunteer force. Several residents have prodded the government for much of the past decade to hire paid firefighters.

County officials say the force, composed of 12 fire companies and 1,500 volunteers, meets federal standards for response times.

County Executive David R. Craig called the volunteer force "superb," saying he sees no need for the county to hire professionals.

"There are very, very few problems with the volunteer fire service," said Craig, a Republican in his third year as the county's top elected official. "Why do it another way? If it's not broken, don't fix it."

Tom Schaech, president of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and Emergency Services Association, said the county ultimately will have to add paid firefighters to its force.

"But we are not at that point now," he said. "I am 100 percent convinced that we are maintaining a viable service to the residents of Harford County right now."

But other residents disagree.

Gary Metzbower, a battalion chief with the Baltimore City Fire Department, said he vigorously lobbied officials in the late 1990s to move to a paid force, or at least a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

Metzbower, who lives in Abingdon, said that even though volunteers are required to have a basic level of training, they spend most of their time working on-call from full-time jobs, as opposed to waiting for calls at the station.

At his station in Baltimore, he said, "You take a call 2 o'clock in the morning, [and] when that bell goes off, that apparatus is moving within a minute to a minute five seconds. That's getting out of bed, jumping into the boots and you're on the road."

Volunteers, on the other hand, often have to leave their homes and get to the fire station, he said.

"You take a snowy night like tonight, there's so many things to consider," he said.

Longo, a lieutenant with the Montgomery County Fire Department who used to be a volunteer firefighter in Harford County, said volunteers take far fewer calls than professionals.

"You may go two, three, four weeks without even running a call," Longo said of volunteers. "How finely tuned are your skills? You get what you paid for."

He added: "Would you go to a dentist that only practiced dentistry a few days a month?"

The Abingdon fire company, which serves a nearly 34-square- mile area in the fastest-growing section of the county, has about 125 volunteers who handled more than 6,000 calls last year.

The company's chief is Albert Bair, a welder for Amtrak, who left his full-time job Thursday to go the burning house in the 3400 block of Philadelphia Road. Other volunteers left their jobs and headed to the station or went directly to the fire, Bair said. Many firefighters were there 12 hours or longer; crews remained at the scene until after midnight.

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