Friday, February 29, 2008

Will Volunteer Department Pack Up and Leave Town?

Ocean City (MD) Volunteers Vote To Secede From Fire Department

OCEAN CITY, MD (February 28, 2008) – In a move that will likely jeopardize the safety of citizens in one of the East Coast’s largest beach communities, the Ocean City (MD) Vounteer Fire Company is packing up its apparatus, equipment and membership and moving out of town. That leaves Fire, Rescue and EMS protection in the hands of the few career personnel that currently operate in the city.

What prompted the OCMD vollies to bolt? Well, in short, the paid firefighters and the volunteer president wanted to combine command of the volunteer and career ranks under a single fire chief, much like it is done in other combination fire departments nationwide.

In a report published in the Salisbury Times, during a Feb.12 Ocean City Town Council meeting with OCVFD leadership, volunteer Chief Christopher Larmore expressed a desire to be named head of both the paid and volunteer firefighters, with the goal of unifying fire service under a single operational and administrative leader.

The first vote was a bust with council offering a split decision. Volunteers were enraged. Within hours of the council meeting, the OC volunteers hastily assembled their own quorum. By 7pm that evening, OC’s Bravest voted to secede from the Ocean City Fire Department and move their resources 4 miles inland to West Ocean City.

Then on February 19th, Larmore’s appointment was considered again and council gave him complete authority and responsibility for all fire and emergency medical services for the Town of Ocean City.

But OCVFD’s decision to secede is still on the books, and the community assumes that someday soon, the volunteers will be gone.

With the possibility of OC vollies abandoning the fort, the city will need to replace 60 fire officers, 124 firefighters, 88 drivers, 2 administrative employees, with paid personnel. A quick trip to the National Volunteer Fire Council’s website and its “vollie-saver” calculator shows that Ocean City would need to come up with $7 - $10 million to replace the volunteer members.

In a report published on the website, city fathers would also need to allocate an additional $6 million to replace the apparatus owned by the volunteers, which would be removed from the city. New purchases would include eight engines, three aerial trucks, and six utility vehicles. The volunteers also own the town’s 5 firehouses, so the city’s firefighters would likely operate from parking lots and mobile homes – much like they did in New Orleans after Katrina.

In total OC administrators would need to quickly come up with a whopping $13 million to convert the town’s fire-rescue and EMS to a paid department, just months before the 2008 season begins.

Volunteer president James Jester claims that his volunteers will remain on standby in Ocean City until the town can provide its own group of first responders.

Jester told, “No way, no how are we going to close buildings and pull apparatus until the city has what they need."

But some are concerned that volunteers -- who respond from their homes when the alarm is sounded -- offer no guarantee that they’ll respond at all. The town insists that the existing force of 75 career firefighters is fully capable of protecting the massive beach community.

Fulltime residents of Ocean City are concerned. They say that the most severe fires take place now, during the Winter months, when most seasonal structures and stack shacks are buttoned up tight.

“I can’t understand it,” says John Milton, ‘a retired DC firefighter who now calls OC home. “We all take an oath the first day we walk into the firehouse – volunteers included – and that is to protect property and save lives.”

The pressure tactic which is being used in Ocean City by its volunteers has been attempted before – and it has always failed. The most noteworthy occurred 10 years ago, when the Wayne Township Fire Department in Indianapolis, threatened to pull it volunteer staff and apparatus from stations if Township fathers backed a plan to convert to a combination department under the command of one of the most respected fire chiefs in Indiana.

Township residents didn’t take the threat lightly. When it came time for the citizen public to choose between its volunteers or a newly-formed combo department, the greater percentage voted for the guarantee of 24x7 service provided by the new agency.

In what many consider to be a power play gone awry, the OCVFD has opened itself to public criticism and peer debate. But more importantly, if some Ocean City resident loses their life, home or business in coming weeks because of lack of volunteer response, the volunteer agency will quickly become the target of dozens of attorneys, who will initiate civil action against the department, its officers and members.