Fire company coverage policy debated

October 23, 1997


Staff Writer

SMITHSBURG - The message from the 911 dispatcher comes across crisply: An automatic fire alarm has sounded at a house on Troy Lane at about 1:40 p.m.

The Mount Aetna and Smithsburg volunteer fire companies are dispatched.

Moments after Mount Aetna acknowledges, a message comes in from Smithsburg Fire Chief Ron Jeter telling emergency dispatchers that the company will not be able to respond.

"We have a wedding we're part of. It starts at 2," said the message, recorded on tape at the Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications Center.


The alarm turned out to be false, but the situation has set off complaints from some volunteer firefighters in the county.

It's not that the fire truck was taken to the July 26 wedding; equipment is sent to weddings, funerals and parades all the time.

The problem is Jeter didn't tell anyone the fire truck would be out of service, said Chuck Snodderly, assistant chief of the Funkstown Volunteer Fire Co.

"We questioned how one person could make a decision that affects not only two companies, but also the community," said Snodderly, whose department was getting backup from Smithsburg at the time due to construction on Robinwood Drive.

When he learned Jeter was at a wedding, Snodderly said he asked the Hagerstown Fire Department to commit another engine truck as a backup.

Jeter attributed the complaints to a misunderstanding and said the equipment and personnel were not out of service.

"We didn't refuse a call," he said. In fact, Smithsburg wasn't supposed to be called at all, a fact confirmed by Chief Ron Karn, head of Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications.

Mount Aetna and Smithsburg are both dispatched on fire calls between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. This call came in on a Saturday, Karn said.

The Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association plans to speak with the chiefs of the Smithsburg and Funkstown companies, said association President Jay Grimes.

Grimes said the Smithsburg board of directors is investigating the matter.

"It's more of an internal problem as far as I'm concerned. I think it should be solved there," he said.

Fred Smith, president of the Smithsburg Volunteer Fire Department, would not confirm whether the department has conducted its own investigation. One firefighter, who asked not to be named, said several members have asked for one in a letter sent to the company's board of directors.

Jeter said that Mount Aetna firefighters, dispatched along with Smithsburg that afternoon, have not complained.

Mount Aetna Chief Terry Stouffer said he does not feel Jeter acted inappropriately. He said responding from Pen Mar Park would have taken longer, but said that is also the case when firefighters respond to emergencies when they are away from the station on another call.

"I have no problem with what they did," he said.

Some firefighters want the fire and rescue association to set clear guidelines to prevent a repeat of the incident. The association's Chief Officers Committee, which meets in December, will consider such guidelines, Grimes said.

Jeter said he took only one fire engine to the wedding. There was ample equipment and people on call back in Smithsburg to go out if needed, he said.

"It's not like the station was empty or everybody was up there," Jeter said.

Jeter added that firefighters and equipment at the wedding could have responded if needed.

Staff Writer Kerry Lynn Fraley contributed to this story.

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