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Firefighters miffed with lack of local marshals

April 30, 2001

Firefighters miffed with lack of local marshals



By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

kimy@herald-mail.com

Several Washington County firefighters say the number of Maryland State fire marshals covering Western Maryland is insufficient and are asking people to appeal to their legislators for more.

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First Hose Co. of Boonsboro Deputy Chief Troy Lloyd said he doesn't mind giving up his free time to fight fires; however, he says having to wait for hours after a fire is put out for a fire marshal to arrive on weekends and nights is too long.

Firefighters have to remain at the fire to make sure any evidence isn't tampered with or homeowners don't try to clean things up, he said.

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"Once the fire department takes charge of a fire scene, we are the owners of that property. We take responsibility," he said.

The act of taking charge of the property ties up volunteer firefighters and their vehicles that could be sent on other calls, he said.

State fire marshals are called to any Washington County fire when the cause of the blaze is not obvious, said Lloyd.

"It's regrettable that these guys are inconvenienced but sometimes we can't prevent it," said Allen Gosnell, deputy chief state fire marshal for the western region, which includes Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

Gosnell agreed that there is a shortage of fire marshals and said the existing fire marshals are doing the best they can.

Three investigators and a supervisor cover Western Maryland, said Gosnell.

The office used to employ five investigators and a supervisor. Over the past year, employees have transferred or quit, leaving them short-handed.

He is in the process of hiring at least one fire marshal and will try to fill another slot in the future, if authorized, he said.

In addition to the main office in Hagerstown for the western region, fire investigators work out of Maryland State Police barracks in Cumberland and Allegany counties.

The Boonsboro Fire Department went to three fires Saturday, two of which required a fire marshal who had to travel to Washington County.

Firefighters ended up waiting four hours for a fire marshal to investigate a fire that took about two minutes to put out, said Lloyd.

Gosnell said the fire investigator came from Oakland, Md., to investigate Boonsboro's fires and their records show the trip took a little more than two hours.

"I know it may have seemed like four hours," he said.

He said he could contact fire marshals in other regions to come here, but that would take even longer.

Lloyd said there is a shortage of volunteers in Boonsboro and those who participate want to fight fires, not baby-sit property.

The delay for a fire marshal has been a problem for more than a year, said Lloyd.

If Washington County residents let their lawmakers know they want more state fire marshals, something will have to be done, he said.

If firefighters leave the scene of a suspicious fire before the fire marshal arrives, "it could ruin their whole investigation," said Sharpsburg Vol. Fire Co. Chief Jeremy Gay.

"No one would know if the arsonist returned to take away evidence. We are obligated to stay," said Gay.

Sharpsburg firefighters were called to about 50 structure fires last year and about half required a fire marshal, he said.

"It's a countywide problem," said Maugansville-Goodwill Fire Co. Chief Phil Ridenour.

In the past, Washington County had state fire marshals living in the area who could respond quickly, Ridenour said

Now, fire marshals sometimes have to travel more than 100 miles to investigate Washington County fires, he said.

A possible solution would be for a Maryland State trooper to stay at a suspicious fire scene instead of the firefighters, said Ridenour.

"But we know they have limited manpower, too," he said.

The easiest answer is to hire more locally-based state fire marshals, said Ridenour.

That can only be done if people based in Washington County or nearby apply for the positions, said Gosnell.

A former firefighter himself, Gosnell said he understands their aggravation and he is eager to meet with area fire companies to work out the problem.

"It's a complicated situation and there is no easy fix," he said.

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