Culver withdraws support for new fire territory

After a long battle that led to heated disagreements and a virtual cold war between county and city officials, Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver will no long fight for fire service territory for recently formed Station 13.

He told the Salisbury Independent on Wednesday that he continues to support volunteer firefighters, but because of the legalities of the Fire Service Agreement signed in April, there is nothing more he can do.

Made up of volunteer firefighters who broke away from the city Fire Department in January, Station 13 is staffed by members who secured a building on Snow Hill Road and have been holding fundraisers to buy equipment and provide fire service.

The intention was to begin providing service on Sept. 15, but Station 13 Chief Cory Polidore has said the firefighters will be just as happy to provide mutual aid, as long as they are helping to keep the county safe.

In recent months, controversy and arguments have generally centered around what territory the volunteers would cover, with Culver supporting a service zone outside the Salisbury Bypass. Culver directed the Emergency Services Department to begin making preparations to give that property to Station 13.

At Tuesday night’s regular Wicomico County Council meeting, Culver read a prepared statement saying he takes full responsibility for his actions, intended to keep the entire county safe.

Citing a previous engagement, he left the meeting, but Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg stayed to answer council questions at a concluding work session.

County Attorney Paul Wilber joined Strausburg in answering council members’ questions — questions that revealed they had great concern about Culver’s strategy.

The Station 13 volunteers were formerly assigned to Station 1. When city Fire Department leaders questioned several of the members’ ability to answer calls in a timely manner, they left to form their own organization.

The volunteers have been subject to some public criticism, but County Council President John Cannon stressed several times that the council members support all firefighters, volunteer and paid.

“The volunteers feel the County Council doesn’t support them. It really has nothing to do with support,” Cannon said Tuesday night. “The support is there … we’re not siding with the city. It has to do with what this council’s role is in government. What is needed here in Wicomico County? It’s a matter of logistics,” he said.

The Fire Service Agreement is a mechanism to compensate Salisbury for calls its paid and volunteer firefighters answer outside the city’s Fire Service Area.

The document does nothing to establish new service areas, but does contain a map outlining whom the primary responders will be. The city has both opposed giving Station 13 any territory covered by Station 1 and — hinting at reliability questions — said it would not allow Station 13 to provide mutual aid.

Complicating the matter is that Station 13 wants to establish its base on Snow Hill road — on a tract that is in the county but is nearly encompassed by the city limits.  

Culver had recently proposed putting $408,000 in the county budget to fund Station 13, but he did not make that recommendation as part of his fiscal 2018 budget.

On Wednesday, County Councilman Joe Holloway said it is “outrageous that this went as far as it went.”

“Mr. Culver showed no support for Station 13 even during the budget process or (during) the drafting and signing of the fire agreement,” Holloway said. “This is an unfortunate incident that has caused a lot of embarrassment, not only for the hardworking fire service members in the county but also for the county as a whole.”

County Councilman Marc Kilmer said Wilber and Strausburg — in their council appearance Tuesday — confirmed that there was “no legal way to give unilateral territory under the Fire Service Agreement.”

“If the Fire Service Agreement didn’t have any territory for Station 13 — and it was always the understanding of the attorney and the county administrator — then I am confused as to why this question continued for so long.

“This was never about supporting volunteer firefighters. This was about trying to resolve legal questions,” Kilmer said.

“According to the executive’s office, there was never any doubt about what the Fire Service Agreement said. And yet we’ve gone through these past five months with this situation going on,” Kilmer said.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, an adamant opponent of the city giving up any territory to Station 13, said Wednesday he appreciated the “steadfastness and  partnership” among Strausburg, the County Council and County Attorney Wilber, as displayed at the County Council meeting.

Culver no longer fighting for Station 13 will be “music to the ears of the residents of Nutters and other parts of the district who have repeatedly expressed their anger over a possible reduction in service,” Day told the Salisbury Independent.

Polidore said he would have expected a city leader to make a more factual statement, since “we have had plenty of residents of Nutters Crossing asking us to provide service to them.”

“The city needs more career staffing and needs more units in service,” Polidore said. “We are more than willing to sit down in a professional and mature manner to discuss that and speak with them (Day and city leaders) if they are willing to be mature and sit down and discuss public safety.”

Polidore said he asked Culver about Station 13 providing mutual aid; he said Culver supported the idea. Even if Salisbury doesn’t want their help, Polidore said, there are 12 other fire departments in Wicomico County, including Station 13.

“Our company would like to thank the County Council and the County Executive for their time. We apologize for how long this has been drug out. Our intention was always to be beneficial to the county and its residents and to provide public safety. Now, we’re still willing to provide mutual aid,” he said.

“The community still supports us. We have community support. That is not a lie. As of now are continuing, still pushing forward, to provide service,” Polidore said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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