Company 1 firefighters hope to build a station on property at 800 Snow Hill Road in Salisbury.The volunteer firefighters of Salisbury Company 1 want to build their own fire station on Snow Hill Road, be granted a coverage territory, sign a mutual aid pact with the city and continue as a recipient of county funding for fire services.
Whether they can achieve those goals is an open question, and many people believe it doubtful.
In a presentation last week to the Wicomico County Council, Company 1 leadership member Cory Polidore said volunteers have located a tract for their own fire station, and are obtaining financing for the lease/purchase of two fire engines, two Advanced Life Support ambulances and a used 2,000-gallon tanker truck.
“We want to keep the county territory we’ve had since 1986,” Polidore said. The proposed station site at 800 Snow Hill Road, in a section of Salisbury where city and county lines zigzag across the jurisdictions, would be less than a mile from the city fire station on Beaglin Park Drive.
The company has crafted an annual budget of $567,000 and is counting on Wicomico for about 43 percent of that total, or about $250,000. Polidore, however, declined to tell the council how much cash the nonprofit company has on hand.
He said the company had recruited 14 new members for a total of 40 volunteer members.
In addition to its own nonprofit fundraising, the company receives money via the Lacey Fund Committee through the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore.
“At this time, we don’t want to release any funding information, in regards to what we have in the bank,” he said.
Council President John Cannon called the special work session with the fire company’s leadership as an information-gathering exercise. Cannon said the council had been inundated with questions from constituents wondering how the situation might impact property insurance rates.
Since the city and volunteers divorced themselves Feb. 22, competing stories about the relationship’s end have circulated within the community, as have stories that the volunteers might be granted a new fire service territory at the Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport.
Polidore explained to council members that fire company leaders met several times with city officials, but the two sides “couldn’t seem to get it right.” He said their several conflicts had been brewing and formal outside mediation was in order.
After volunteer firefighters concluded they could not reach an agreement with city officials about command and performance issues at Station No. 1, Company 1 leadership announced the firefighters would abandon their position effective July 1. In response, the city administration said the volunteers could leave immediately.
The volunteers’ elected leaders are David Elliott Sr., their president; and Charles Foskey, their vice president. Neither man spoke at last Thursday’s session. While some members of the rebelling fire company were present, only Polidore, who said he resigned Feb. 22 as a Station 1 Deputy Volunteer Chief, spoke in support of Company 1’s desire to create a new fire base.
After Polidore’s presentation, however, several city firefighters, both paid personnel and volunteers, took turns addressing the council. All spoke in opposition.
Salisbury Fire Chief Rick Hoppes spoke last, saying the volunteers had multiple opportunities to meet with the City Council, Mayor Jake Day, or himself, but that the city had no interest in treating with the firefighters’ lawyer, Bruce Bright of Ayres, Jenkins, Gordy & Almand in Ocean City.
“To say the city refused to meet with them is disingenuous,” Hoppes said.
In a news release first announcing the split, Elliott and Foskey declared city officials had refused “to participate in mediation, as proposed by the company.”
Salisbury has a nonprofit volunteer company serving each of the city’s three stations; Station 1’s actions do not affect volunteer companies at Station 2 on Brown Street or Station 16, the headquarters station on Cypress Street. Salisbury has about 180 volunteers in all, with 30 volunteers previously serving Station 1.
For the volunteers to create a new station, they would have to scale several state regulation hurdles, including establishing a territory and obtaining the blessing of the Maryland Fire Chiefs Association. They have no fire trucks or major equipment that they can take with them from Station 1, and would have to raise large sums of money to establish a new foothold.
The company would also have to negotiate a mutual aid agreement with their former brethren in the city.
Money from the county would also be essential. Currently the County Executive divides about $1 million annually among Wicomico’s 10 fire companies. About $300,000 goes to Salisbury companies, with Company 1’s share being about $100,000.
Despite Company 1’s desire to continue receiving the cash, county officials would still have to be convinced.
And while County Executive Bob Culver has expressed broad support for all firefighting volunteers, he has not specifically addressed Company 1’s future.
In a statement last week, Culver said: “I am very supportive of all Wicomico County Fire Department Volunteers and appreciate all that they do. The decision made by the Salisbury Fire Department Volunteers was a personal choice of theirs.”
On Thursday, County Council members – who must approve the annual budget – seemed skeptical during Polidore’s presentation. When Polidore seemed surprised that the county’s continued financial support was by no means a certainty, Canon said pointedly: “We’re the entrepreneurs; you’re the investment.”
On Monday, Cannon said he had personal concerns about Company 1’s potential.
“For them to have the ability to put together a sustainable company in the limited time (by July 1) is somewhat questionable,” Cannon said. “To create an entirely new fire company, with a building and staff, takes time.”
Council Vice President Larry Dodd, a former firefighter at Station 1, became emotional while discussing the situation. Not only does Dodd have strong ties to both the paid and volunteer ranks, his District council territory is part of the Station 1/Company 1 coverage area.
“It does hurt me, and I wish you wouldn’t do this,” Dodd told Polidore.
A recent city-county fire service study financed by both municipalities warned that no new volunteer companies should be added because of a lack of volunteer manpower. The lack of volunteers is a nationwide problem.
Meanwhile, on an entirely separate track, city and county administrative officials are continuing negotiations on a Fire Services Agreement. Salisbury is seeking a greater reimbursement for costs it incurs in providing emergency services to county residents. That figure could additionally range from $1 million to $1.5 million per year.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org