Impending Fire Services pact could sort out territory battle with city volunteers

County Executive Bob Culver and County Attorney Paul Wilber, listen to Michael Davis, right, President of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association at a recent Wicomico County Volunteer Firefighters Association meeting. (Todd Dudek Photo.)

City and county officials are close to adopting a Fire Services Agreement as the matter of unhappy volunteer firefighters leaving city Station No. 1 and forming a new company continued to smolder.

Expected this week, the agreement, Mayor Jake Day said, “will dictate a lot of what happens from this point forward.”

By state law, a new station couldn’t be started unless state regulation hurdles were cleared, including establishing a territory and obtaining the blessing of the Maryland Fire Chiefs Association.

Volunteers, who say they want to settle in a building on Snow Hill Road and operate independently, have no trucks or major equipment from Station 1, also on Beaglin Park, and would have to raise large sums of money to establish a new foothold.

Traditionally, new stations aren’t formed unless the community clamors for them, as happened when the Allen Volunteer Fire Company opened, said Walter “Tri” Townsend III, President of the Station 16 volunteers based at the Cypress Street headquarters.

“Nobody wants a new fire station,” he said.

Those advocating a new station want to cover the area outside the city limits, between Mount Hermon and Snow Hill roads, extending to the Route 13 Bypass.

Meantime, the issue isn’t worrying Salisbury’s mayor.

“It’s being treated as though it’s a big story and that has been entertaining to us in the city,” Day said. “Rogue individuals left an organization. They were incapable of meeting standards. It’s jubilation around the Fire Department these days.”

Insisted Day: “This was about individuals’ egos. We don’t have time for ego. We have standards to keep. We have to respond to fires on time and we can’t coddle people.”

He was referring to volunteer response times being too slow when they covered for paid staff on weekends, after the city officials, last fall, required stations to be manned around the clock, every day of the year.

Salisbury has about 180 volunteers, with 30 previously at Station 1.

“The city and people expect a certain response time,” Townsend said.

“Responding from home takes longer and longer with heavier and heavier traffic here in Salisbury. The number of calls is increasing. When you break the 800-a-year mark, you need in-house staffing,” he said.

“What was happening was, we’re failing at a 50.4 percent rate at responding on time, to get to the station and get our apparatus going in under four minutes. We knew we had to do something better. We tried doing it with volunteers. It got to the point where the chief had to say, ‘I am going to take my crew here at 16, break them down to minimum staffing and the volunteers can fill in,’” Townsend said.

Townsend said he lives one and one-quarter mile from the fire station and it takes him more than seven minutes to arrive there.

“You fail (with response times) 50 percent of the time. What’s going to say you’re going to do any better on your own, in an independent fire station? How are you going to perform? How are you going to get financing? How are you going to pay for your rent, your maintenance? Everything was paid for by the city. All you had to do was give us your time,” he said.

Paying for new firehouse

It has been reported the newly assembled volunteers borrowed $250,000 to get started, but Townsend said they have more than $800,000 in assets and about $3 million, with more than half the money from the county.

Withdrawing volunteers were not allowed to remove equipment from the Fire Department and have complained city officials unfairly locked them out. Michael Davis, president of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, issued a news release stating the association “does not condone the actions of the City of Salisbury locking out the volunteers and seizing the property of Salisbury Station 1 … we kindly ask the city of Salisbury to allow the volunteers to have what is rightfully theirs, specifically equipment which was paid for by Salisbury Station 1 with county and state funding,” he wrote.

Davis stated although it’s unfortunate the volunteers want to separate, it is their right. He said the MSFA will use local, state and national resources to “help the Salisbury Station 1 with this matter, just as we would any of our volunteer fire companies.”

Cory Polidore, spokesman for the Company 1 volunteers, said the separation occurred “over some ethical and legal issues dealing with finances, legal issues involving grant money and how that money is allocated to the company, that it is not supposed to be given to a municipality.”

“A certain percentage can be given, but it’s very small,” he said. “When we bought a piece of equipment, the city was saying, ‘Oh, no. It belongs to us now,’” Polidore said, citing military grant money that the volunteer corporation receives.

“We had concerns over that and we had concerns about who was deciding how to spend county money, any kind of money the volunteer corporation was allocated, who was making those decisions to spend that on what. Some things we didn’t agree with the city on,” he said.

“A lot of things we started talking about. We weren’t agreeing with some of these things. We wanted to go to mediation to talk to the city about them but the city would go to mediation. They said, ‘You must go through the chain of command.’ We did but we still had these concerns,” he said.

Concerning response times, Polidore said national standards require 15 firefighters to be assembled at the scene of an emergency within 9 minutes. He assailed Chief Hoppes’ calculations on response times.

“His measurements are wrong. He is using statistics to manipulate the public that we aren’t performing and that is incorrect,” Polidore said.

“This isn’t a new company. We are a county station. We are a county organization. We were just in an agreement with the city. We terminated that agreement. We are moving outside of the city,” he said, adding the new station will open by July 1.

A new fire truck has been purchased and staff is working on buying an ambulance, he said.

Townsend’s statement that the withdrawing volunteers have $3 million is incorrect, he said, and volunteers have not borrowed any money.

“For some reason the president of Company 16 has taken interest in us as we separate from the city. They are taking more interest in us than in volunteering,” he said.

“This is way more than fighting fires. It is providing emergency services to the community,” he said.

Longtime city leader weighs in

Norman Conway, longtime state delegate, former City Councilman and Fire Department leader, said he had desperately hoped the hard feelings could be avoided.

“I hate to see this split,” he said. “I was hoping the matter could be worked out. I think the chief has to make that designation. I would hope any determination he would make would apply to all volunteers our city has. They do a good job. They always have. They have been very well trained.”

Conway seemed to suggest the city was too demanding of the volunteers.

“I think that there should be even a greater effort to try to look at a very responsible role for the volunteers as they have had in the past,” he said.

“I hope what could be proposed by the chief in meeting with them and the other volunteers is that the volunteers could once again feel they are part of a need,” Conway said.

Volunteers used to be able to respond to “any kind of alarm at any given time, even while they were working,” he said.

“That is no longer true. The job markets have changed and people work farther away. There are volunteers as such that aren’t always available for all of the time elements that a fire or an accident might occur,” he said.

Slow response times could have an impact on safety in the community, Conway said.

“The one thing we have to keep in mind is something that we’ve always had open to the Salisbury Fire Department and that was the surrounding companies. Any time you had a problem, and you needed mutual aid, it was always there.

“That has always made a difference. I know that when I was on City Council we always respected highly the ability of the surrounding community to come in and help Salisbury whenever they needed it and Salisbury was always been available to help other communities,” he said.

Culver taking waiting stance

County Executive Bob Culver this week said he isn’t taking sides.

“The paid people think I’m on their side,” he said, “(but) I respect very much our volunteers in the county. I have 11 (volunteer fire companies) that I fund that cover a large part of the county and I respect what they do.”

Added Culver: “I’m waiting for them to tell me. I know I have certain powers but I don’t know turnout times and I don’t know territorial times. I have 11 chiefs and I depend on them to tell me,” he said.

Culver has maintained the decision to establish an independent fire station should be made by the Fire Chief’s Association.

“It’s a power issue on the part of the volunteers,” Townsend said.

“The volunteers want control of the money and they want to do what they want with it. They want more lax rules in the city. We are all equals, volunteers and paid. We have the same requirements, the same training,” he said.

Day said it seems many cities suffer through this kind of turmoil.

“It ends up in total disarray and there’s a lot of shenanigans and terrible behavior among firefighters. That’s the last thing firefighters should be engaged in,” the mayor said.

What’s most important, he said, is Salisbury residents have always had, and will continue to have, full fire and emergency response coverage.

“They have never been at risk of losing any service. The only thing that has ever been at risk or is even in discussion is the unincorporated portions of the Salisbury Fire District, areas outside the city of Salisbury. But the way it’s been reported in some publications, it’s like, ‘Who is going to provide fire service to Salisbury?’” he said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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