Wicomico meets with rebelling firefighters

Mayor Jake Day meets with the media last week at Station 1 to explain the departure of the volunteer company there.

Wicomico County Council members will meet at noon Thursday with rebelling Fire Department volunteers who have served east Salisbury, adding to the political complexity already surrounding the firefighters’ dispute with the city of Salisbury.

After volunteer firefighters concluded they could not reach an agreement with city officials about command and performance issues at Station No. 1 on Beaglin Park Drive, leadership for the station’s volunteers announced they would abandon their position effective July 1. In response, the city administration said the volunteers could leave immediately.

Now the County Council is wading into the matter, citing concerns about how the changes might impact a Fire Services Agreement being negotiated with the city. County Council members might also consider whether to establish a fire house location for the rebellious volunteers.

County Executive Bob Culver has hinted a station could be based at Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport.

The former Station 1 volunteers will be represented in the County Council meeting by Cory Polidore, one of the volunteers. The volunteers’ elected leaders are David Elliott Sr., their president, and Charles Foskey, their vice president.

For his part, Council President John Cannon insists Thursday’s work-session-like meeting is merely to gather information.

“We’re not looking to approve anything,” he said. “The council doesn’t know (officially) what’s going on at all and we need to find out.”

Cannon said the encounter is not related to the possible future need to staff an airport fire company.

“This has nothing to do with the airport,” he said. “This is about a group of firefighters who are unhappy with Station 1. We need to meet — we need to know details.”

The fire protection ranks were rattled last Wednesday night when Elliott and Foskey dispatched a news release declaring that the city officials had refused “to participate in mediation, as proposed by the company.”

The statement reads: “The corporation and its members are grateful for the time in which they have been able to provide services to the city of Salisbury as part of the SFD, and the opportunities that were once presented to them within the SFD. However, going forward, the corporation has determined that it can better fulfill its mission … by separating from SFD and establishing a base of operation outside the city and from outside the ‘umbrella’ of SFD.’ ”

The volunteers are technically members of the Salisbury Fire Department Inc. – Company No. 1. A nonprofit organization, its members – operating out of Station 1 – provide assistance to the city career firefighters.

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.

If the volunteers were 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.

On Thursday, the day after Company No. 1’s announcement, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day called a news conference in front of Station 1 to both explain the situation and announce the administration’s plans going forward.

Day sought to point out that the staffing losses would not affect the station’s response times or overall performance. He also said only about 10 members were actually resigning from city service, about 10 members had agreed to join the city’s other volunteer companies, and the rest were uncertain.

“This is not a crisis,” the mayor said. “We’re going to keep doing the same things today that we did yesterday. We’re going to keep doing the same thing tomorrow, and I think we’re going to be stronger for it.

“Right now, as far as we know, there are 10 people who don’t want to be part of the organization – and have been obliged,” he said.

Company 1 leaders countered that only two members planned to stay with the city. As usual, perceptions were at play: The city said fire leaders were calling volunteers and encouraging them to stay, and receiving positive feedback; volunteer leaders portrayed city leaders as pathetically begging their members to stay.

The mayor said that senior members of Company 1 – or “Life Members” who had grown too old to serve in physically demanding roles – had difficulty with policies that required them to answer to career staff and resented reporting to a consolidated command under a paid fire chief.

Historically among Lower Shore fire companies, accommodations have been made to allow for paid and volunteer companies, often operating in the same service areas but under different commands. With the decrease in the number of volunteer recruits, however, more volunteers are working under a paid command. It is a nationwide situation that has generated resentments in communities everywhere.

“Our firefighters and EMTS are incredible people,” Day said. “They do things that I couldn’t do and that most of us couldn’t do. I think it’s worth recognizing that we appreciate all that they do.

“And those 10 (who are leaving), they’ve all given many, many good years of service and we respect and appreciate everything they did. Now is a time that they don’t want to work for the city Fire Department anymore,” Day said. “I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry to see those 10 people go, but I didn’t ask for this and we have to manage now and achieve our goals with the people we’ve got.”

Just a few days prior to Company 1’s breakaway announcement, in a City Council work session, Fire Chief Rick Hoppes endured some questioning over department response times. In that meeting, Day reported that Hoppes had been “on the firing line” and had been directed to improve response.

At that meeting, Hoppes went over his budget with the council, and was approved to hire four additional paid firefighters.

On Thursday, Day said Station 1 was the “historically low” underperformer, contributing to the poor response times. Station 1 volunteers failed to meet standards for response time during the past four years.

Among the performance-improvement changes ordered by Hoppes was that new volunteer recruits be required to serve shifts from their station, rather than their homes. A task force made up of firefighters made the recommendation; Hoppes directed its implementation to improve the statistics.

Career firefighters are expected to have a 90-second turnout 90 percent of the time, which should be easy to do since they are already at the station. Volunteers are expected to report within 4 minutes 90 percent of the time, but must make this time from their homes.

City trucks are expected to reach emergency scenes within 6 minutes.

Career staff members have routinely exceeded that goal, but the average response for Company 1 has been just over 50 percent. City officials admitted that volunteers serving Stations 2 and 16 are performing better, but the response times, Hoppes said at the Feb. 21 City Council work session, “still need a lot of work.”

“When we have fully staffed this station, 24/7, with career firefighters, supplemented with volunteers, we have seen a 100 percent response rate to fires,” Day said. “Nothing changed from yesterday from today. … We will keep the changes in place that improve service, regardless of the loss of volunteers.”

In an unsigned news release issued in response to the mayor’s Thursday address, Company 1 leaders disputed many of the mayor’s assertions and accused the city of locking them out of Station 1 and threatening  criminal trespass charges.

The mayor contends, however, that some Company 1 members began removing equipment. Police arrived and the firefighters were told to return the equipment, which they did.

Who was entitled to what equipment was a huge issue when Station No. 2 volunteers tried to break off from the city 15 years ago. That highly tense, multi-month battle was calmed only when volunteers voted in new leadership. A new station has been built in the years since.

The 2002-2003 fight concerned who would lead the volunteers. When then-Chief Stephen Brezler, the first chief appointed in decades from outside the city’s ranks, implemented a plan to have volunteers report to paid staff, insurrection was the result.

The County Council’s involvement in the issue could be slightly contrary to the mayor’s assessment on matters. Day, in his Thursday news conference, declared that county leaders were “in no mood to consider another fire station.”

“We have spoken to members of the County Council,” Day said, “and I don’t want to speak for them … but it was clear they had no desire to start another fire station or fire company.”

Day pointed to the most recent city-county fire service study that warned that no new volunteer companies should be added because of a lack of volunteer manpower.

County Executive Culver’s suggestion that the firefighters could be deployed at the airport might enhance their prospects for a new home.

There is also speculation that some County Council members want to highlight the Salisbury Station 1 dispute to either escape or craft a more favorable deal for the Fire Services Agreement now being negotiated.

If, for example, the County Council agrees to finance a fire station at the airport, presumably it would demand a reduced payment to the city of Salisbury for emergency services.

Salisbury is seeking reimbursement for costs it incurs in providing emergency services to county residents. That figure could range from $1 million to $1.5 million per year.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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