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Fire training center reaction

March 15, 1997

Does county need center for training firefighters?

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

Plans to build a new county fire training center has drawn heat from some fire chiefs.

With the drop in the number of volunteers forcing some departments to find money to pay drivers, the training center proposed by the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association has come under fire. 

"Our problem is getting fire trucks on the street 24 hours a day, 365 days a week," said Long Meadow Fire Chief Richard Roche.

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"I don't see where a $635,000-plus training center is the answer to the problem. There are classes going on now that we can't find people to go to. What good would it be to build a school that we don't have students to send to?''

Roche said that the issue comes down to spending public money wisely. "Would you rather dig in your pockets a little bit deeper to guarantee that you'll get a fire truck, or would you rather pay for a training center that there is nobody to go to?"

Maugansville Fire Chief Phil Ridenour said he didn't oppose a training center, but said that money would be better spent providing manpower during daytime hours.

"We can use that money a lot better in divvying it out to fire departments that are struggling to keep their doors open," he said.

"If we do anything I would be for working with the city of Hagerstown," Ridenour said. The city already has a training center, but it has been criticized as too small. "Let's try and join our forces a little bit rather than trying to duplicate what they have."

Association President Jay Grimes said that the issue wasn't a matter of money for operations versus money for a training center; both are needed, he said.

Grimes said the association will present a request to the Washington County Commissioners that the county pay for fire companies' utilities, fuel, maintenance and day-to-day costs plus career personnel where needed.

Grimes also said the proposal for a training center wouldn't cost much more money than the county plans on spending anyway.

About $475,000 is available for constructing a building to house the county HAZMAT team, he said. Under the association proposal, that money would be used to buy land and build a building for HAZMAT, county civil defense and a training center.

The association wants a bigger slice of Washington County Gaming Commission tip jar funds to pay the rest of the cost for the training center.

"We're not asking to build a full-fledged training center today," Grimes said "It could take 10 years or 15 years to accomplish what we want." Grimes said a training center could also be used by county employees, the Sheriff's Department and area businesses.

But Roche said the issue of staffing at some fire companies is critical and must be addressed first.

Roche said some struggling companies haven't been able to respond at all hours, meaning that fire calls must be answered by departments that are further away.

"I don't know of any lives that have been lost or any properties that have been lost, but the potential is there,'' Roche said. "It's only by the grace of God that nobody's been killed yet or nobody's house has been burnt to the ground.

"Our position is to Mr. Grimes and the fire and rescue association: You're putting the cart before the horse. Stabilize the fire service first. Down the road let's maybe talk about a training center."

But Grimes said one of the reasons for drops in volunteering is that new recruits can't get training when they sign up.

He said some would-be volunteers wait as long as a year to get the training hours needed to ride on a fire truck and help fight fires, he said. As a result, new recruits often quit, he said.

Other fire chiefs strongly support a new training center, and Grimes noted that the association recently voted 28 to 2 to support a new center.

Boonsboro Fire Chief Oley Griffith agrees the need exists for a county training facility. "But,'' he said, "I would love to see more money for the service that we are providing for the public. Both of them are high-priority issues."

Griffith said the fire company recently had to lay off a driver because the company couldn't afford the position. "We're back to hoping volunteers are available."

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