Volunteer firefighters seeking government help

The president of the new Salisbury Independent Volunteer Fire Company plans to send e-mails to city and county leaders, asking for a meeting that he hopes results in details being worked out and city leaders allowing volunteers to have equipment they say belongs to them.

Since the volunteers withdrew from the city several weeks ago, the equipment has remained at the city fire station.

“I want us to meet and to work together to lay out the territory, to give the city a fair share and to give us a fair share of that territory. We need to come to an agreement that’s in the best interest of public safety,” said Corey Polidore, the fire company president.

Meantime, members of the Wicomico County Council have asked the county’s legal department to determine if the county charter allows the $400,000 budget amendment that County Executive Bob Culver presented to the Council on May 2. The money would fund the fire company, tentatively set to open July 1, Culver said.

Culver told Council members he submitted the amendment because the volunteers have now gotten approval from the Maryland Chiefs Association. They didn’t have that approval when he gave them the proposed budget. By state law, a new station can’t be started unless the Chiefs Association agrees and state regulation hurdles are cleared, including establishing a territory.

Polidore told the Salisbury Independent it will cost $450,000 to $500,000 annually to run the new fire station. It will be funded by the county, from quarterly payments received from a private trust fund, state grants and fundraising. “Fire and EMS is not cheap. It doesn’t get cheaper,” he said.

But Council President John Cannon told the Salisbury Independent he knows of no process in the county charter that “allows for a budget amendment to be put forth.”

“There’s a deadline for the budget. They met that. They turned the budget in to us. The Council is in the process of reviewing the budget. There is no process or any means by which the executive can arbitrarily amend the budget and send something else to us. We’d be revisiting the budget every week. Hypothetically he could be giving us a new budget each week. I don’t understand how he expects that to fit into the framework of the county structure,” Cannon said.

Plus, he said, the district for the new fire company has not been clearly defined.

“I know that from the meeting, I sensed there was a feeling that putting these volunteers at the airport could be a win-win for everybody and that is a viable option in my opinion but we’re not there yet. We happen to be in a situation where we need some type of fire service at the airport, so this station could possibly fill that void. There is $300,000 in the budget to cover fire service at the airport. But, outside of that, I am not 100 percent on board with just establishing a new volunteer station where we already have service,” Cannon said.

Polidore said he isn’t opposed to being located at the airport, but feels a substation is needed in town.

“There is some concern from some residents in the County whether another station is needed in town,” Cannon said.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day said city officials “still believe it is unnecessary and not in the best interest of the taxpayers.”

“We also know that the residents of the area are not in favor of a change. That said, we will accommodate it if that’s what the county wishes,” he said.

“Any change in territory will require city and county agreement and we have agreed to a potential change, if the county decides to fund a new station,” the mayor said.

“We are an organization,” Polidore said. “We were founded in 1986. We were in an agreement with the city but we terminated that agreement and just want to continue serving the county independently,” he said.

That termination was met with opposition and claims the volunteers weren’t responding quickly enough to emergencies.

Among those opposed is Walter “Tri” Townsend III, president of Station 16 on Cypress Street, who said new stations aren’t formed unless the community clamors for them, and that isn’t the case.

Volunteers’ response times were 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, he said. Salisbury has about 180 volunteers, with 30 previously at Station 1.

“The city and the 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.

But Polidore disagreed, saying national standards require 15 firefighters to be assembled at the scene of an emergency within nine minutes. Fire Chief Rick Hoppes required four minutes because his theory was it takes five minutes to get to the farthest point in the city from the fire house, so he subtracted five from nine and came up with four.

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

Also leading to the separation from the city he said, were “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. 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 wouldn’t go to mediation. They said, ‘You must go through the chain of command.’ We did but we still had these concerns,” he said.

“The public is very well aware of the professionalism we have maintained throughout this whole thing and they are very well aware of some of the unprofessionalism that the city people have done,” he said.

“All these schemes and tactics, these ploys, were meant to slow us down so we don’t meet our deadline of July 1. We’re still willing to reach for that date. If we have to push back, we will. But these back door conversations between the city and the county, these little handshakes and back door stuff, is not professional or on a fair level,” he said.


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