Thursday, July 10, 2008

Controlling Delaware's Volunteers

Delaware’s Volunteers Face Mandatory Audit

Wilmington, DE (July 10, 2008) – It was about this time last year that Governor Ruth Ann Miller ordered Delaware’s Volunteer Fire Companies to get their firehouses in order. Her demand came in the form of a voluntary audit to be conducted by the departments themselves.

The dispatch that the Governor was issuing at the time came in loud and clear. For the first time ever in the 300 year history of the Delaware volunteer fire service, companies were finally being held publicly accountable for the way they operated.

“This move by Minner…is big time gutsy on her part,” wrote the News Journal’s Ron Williams at the time the Governor issued Executive Order #99. Some believe that the Governor was uncomfortable with embezzlement cases involving Cranston Heights and Frederica fire companies, cases in which both treasurers were found guilty.

However what was once a request from Minner is now state law. Signed by the Governor on Wednesday, House Bill 329 requires that each of Delaware’s 60 volunteer fire departments undergo mandatory financial audits.

State Fire Prevention Commission vice chairman Bob Ricker told the News-Journal that the audits will help ensure that departments are spending their money wisely and create a means for the commission to oversee how funds are being appropriated and then make suggestions about the use of funds

Now comes the rub. Who will determine whether a department is spending money wisely – and what standard will they use?

In my mind, the practice of auditing fire departments will certainly help to reveal inconsistencies in spending, such as theft and embezzlement. But nearly every volunteer fire company is audited by a 3rd party agent, and not a single department has ever refused to open their books when asked.

There’s something more to this audit thing then meets the eye. If you ask me, HB329 is about control.

Although Mr. Ricker didn't come out and say it, HB 329 will place Delaware’s volunteers under the control of the State Fire Prevention Commission. And it won't be long before there is a correlation between annual grants-in-aid to volunteers and the Commission.

Here's one potential scenario. When it comes time to replace old Engine 222, the decision on the purchase of a new rig won’t go to the company floor. Instead it will go to the State Fire Prevention Commission who will have a list of approved vendors as well as a standardized spec. In short, companies will be told who will build their replacement, including pump capacity, size of the water tank, length of hose and how the truck is lettered.

State of Delaware
Department of Public Safety
Division of Fire Suppression
operated by Minquadale Fire Company

No offense to Minquadale -- you guys came to mind first.

Mots national experts agree that control of the fire-rescue services needs to remain with local authorities, and here in the First State that would be best served by a consortium of districts, or perhaps with the county in cooperation with the local companies. But until someone presents that idea to Chris Coons, look for manufacturers’ reps to increase visitation to the offices of the State Fire Prevention Commission.

It’s quite possible that in the future, Delaware’s firefighters will experience their own version of the Space Shuttle syndrome, responding to alarms aboard low-bid machines, wearing low-bid garments and entering burning buildings with tools that may not coincide with the department’s tactics.

A generation ago, Delaware boasted a volunteer fire service of 10,000 members, which represented a huge voting block. Firefighters could swing a local election in a heartbeat and in statewide elections they were a force to be reckoned with. But those numbers have dropped significantly over the past 25 years -- to 4,000 or so -- and many candidates need to be reminded of the contribution of Delaware's volunteers.

Big changes are looming for Delaware's volunteers, however with a few tweaks here and there, the current system can be revamped without much pain, and continue to work for another generation. But if the state intervenes now, as Mr. Ricker suggests, look for many volunteers to hang up their turnouts and helmets.
(1) News-Journal Papers

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You are totally paranoid here man. The bottom line is that if the fire companies in Delaware, which are PRIVATE CORPORATIONS, are getting public (TAX) monies they need to be accountable for where those funds are going. If you are familiar at all with how things work here in Delaware, the funds that come from the state government are "grants in aid". Now, I've worked with grants before, and everywhere else if you get a grant from anyone (but especially from the government) you MUST account for where the money goes. That's ALL this is, the state fire prevention commission is not now, nor will it ever be, some "all powerful" and controlling body for the fire service in Delaware. You do realize that the volunteer fire companies have major control of this group anyway? For crying out loud when have you ever heard of them doing, much less saying, anything that would even look like they were telling any fire company what they are supposed to do.

All that HB 329 does is make sure that ALL fire companies are properly showing where the money is going. If you REALLY look at this, I would believe that it could wind up being a VERY GOOD thing for fire companies because they depend on donations. These audits can wind up showing the public why the fire companies are saying they need more money, and that COULD make the public more inclined to donate to them.