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Letters from fire company inflame some

April 28, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

HALFWAY - A letter sent to businesses that do not donate to the Volunteer Fire Company of Halfway has raised a little ire along with some money.

The first paragraph of the letter reads, "Without your support, we may not be able to respond to an emergency at your facility. The reality of this is: buildings burn down and people, indeed, do die."

Some businesses took that as a veiled threat that firefighters wouldn't show up in an emergency unless a donation was forthcoming.

But the fire company says that the 35 fund-raising letters mailed recently were not intended to intimidate.

"We're not threatening people. We're not extorting them. We're not holding them hostage. We're going to be there no matter what," said Alan L. Matheny, paramedic and public information officer for the fire company.

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The letter, sent to businesses that refused two earlier appeals for money, was supposed to drive home how much the volunteer company depends on support from the business community.

Businesses make up more than 8 percent of Halfway's customers but give less than 2 percent toward the company's nearly $1 million annual budget, the fire company says.

With eight of the top 10 taxpayers in its service area, the fire company needs to have extra equipment and training.

Outside Hagerstown's city limits, Halfway has the smallest service area but the greatest demand for business protection, said Fire Chief Joseph Kroboth III.

Shoney's Restaurant near Valley Mall was one of at least two businesses that found the wording of the letter objectionable.

"My reaction to some of the wording is it's rather strong for a fund-raising letter. Usually when someone wants money from you they bend over backwards to be nice," said Sandy McCaffrey, spokeswoman for the restaurant chain's corporate headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

Later, McCaffrey said she wasn't speaking for the company when she made the statement.

Shoney's receives many requests for donations and is implementing a new process of reviewing them, she said.

On Wednesday, a regional sales manager for Shoney's offered to hold a fund-raiser for the fire department.

Matheny was grateful, but didn't think the timing was coincidental. Fire company records show Shoney's hasn't donated to the fire company in at least five years.

McCaffrey speculated that earlier requests for money had gone through the wrong channels.

Rampf Molds at 10 Western Maryland Parkway was put off by the letter, said Fire Company Administrator Jeffrey C. Ringer.

Matheny and Ringer have been trying to meet with the company president, Bernd Andreas, to explain.

Andreas could not be reached for comment.

Recent actions prove that they would not deny service to a company that didn't donate, they said.

On Tuesday, the fire company responded to a medical call at Shoney's.

Last fall, firefighters helped a horse that had collapsed in Shoney's parking lot due to dehydration. They hoisted the animal with their ladder truck.

Halfway began a separate fund drive for businesses two years ago, mainly because business donations weren't keeping pace with residential donations.

Matheny and Ringer, both paid employees, are trying to visit all of the 500 businesses in an effort to establish a good working relationship, they said.

When asking for a donation of either cash or service, the fire department also offers advice on fire protection.

The effort has increased contributions from businesses. This past year, the fire department received $16,000 from area businesses. Residents of 5,500 homes donated $48,000.

In some cases, the meetings have led to safety education clinics at local businesses, which helps the fire company get out its message while bringing potential customers to the business, Matheny said.

The fire company got no complaints about two previous letters sent in the business fund drive.

The first was from the fire company and the second was from the Washington County Commissioners, who wrote at the request of Halfway Fire Company.

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