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?
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