It's not often that a fire department threatens to move out of town, but that is what's happening in Ocean City. Citing the ongoing dispute over who will manage firefighters and paramedics, the chief of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company last week announced plans to move his organization to West Ocean City and leave the city to deal with emergency services alone.
At the heart of the matter is the familiar turf war between paid and volunteer responders. Ocean City has increasingly relied on hired professionals to staff ambulance and fire calls, but still left management of fire scenes to the volunteers.
That's set to change relatively soon, however, as the town moves to hire a paid fire chief who will likely have the final say on everything. The City Council's decision last week not to hire Christopher Larmore, chief of the volunteer company, to the post on an interim basis led to the dramatic announcement.
And "dramatic" may be just the word for it. Few in Ocean City seriously believe that the entire volunteer fire company will pick up and leave town. But the threat alone has caused quite a stir - and underscores the difficulties communities such as Ocean City face with emergency services.
Ocean City officials insist they have no intention of developing an all-paid service, if only because the town couldn't afford it. Right now, volunteers - who have been a presence for 103 years - represent about half the active-duty personnel.
But the resort town's growth and high real estate prices have put the squeeze on the volunteers. A recent survey found that about 40 percent of the volunteers don't live in the response area. Some commute from as far away as Salisbury.
Figuring out how to coordinate the paid and volunteer services isn't always easy. Plenty of other communities have struggled with it as well. But we do know that threatening to leave town is hardly the way to negotiate a solution.
Lest anyone forget, at stake is the welfare of as many as a quarter-million people on busy summer weekends - not to mention the resort town's $12 billion in assessed property values. Town officials insist that public safety hasn't been jeopardized (and even the volunteers have promised not to leave until replacements are in place). But the squabble will no doubt pique the interests of tourists who may not quite comprehend why an Ocean City fire company wouldn't want to be in Ocean City.