Volunteer companies feel snubbed by businesses

August 25, 2002|BY ANDREW SCHOTZ

Every year, when volunteer fire and rescue companies ask the public for money, residents are more likely to respond than businesses.

A rough approximation is that 25 to 40 percent of homes contribute and less than 10 percent of businesses, said Jason Baer, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association.

Baer said the Maugansville Goodwill Fire Co., of which he is a member, gets a slightly better response from businesses - 15 to 20 percent. He attributed that to having more locally owned businesses than some districts have.


In Williamsport, 12 percent of the fire company's calls are to large businesses and 35 percent are to residences, said Jay Grimes, president of the fire company. Yet, residents are about 10 times more likely to contribute to the fire company's fund drive - 32 percent of residences and less than 3 percent of large businesses respond, Grimes said.

Some local fire and rescue companies interpret the low return rates as a snub. Without enough contributions to cover their expenses, volunteers say they must rely on fund-raisers and hope the county creates a fire tax, which Frederick County has.

Businesses, not volunteers, should hustle to raise money because they benefit from emergency services coverage, said Alan Matheny, EMS coordinator and public information officer for The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway.

"They should be the ones holding bingos and dinners. The CEO of Staples needs to miss a birthday dinner" because he was raising money, Matheny said.

"How many fund-raisers can you have to provide protection?" Grimes asked.

Staples, which is based in Framingham, Mass., and has a distribution center in Halfway, does not contribute to the annual fund drives for the fire company and the rescue squad, Matheny said.

"We've been flat turned down," he said.

Choosing causes

The fire company's proposal for Staples to donate 15 computers - a value of about $13,000 over five years - was rejected.

"They said, 'We only contribute to schools,' " Matheny said. "We don't meet their criteria."

Matheny said Staples is not alone - 35 to 40 percent of the Halfway residences donate, but less than 5 percent of the businesses do.

"On the flip side, we do a tremendous amount of donations to a lot of things," Staples spokeswoman Jen Rosenberg said.

Over the last two years, Staples has donated to six Washington County causes, including North Hagerstown High School, the Maugansville Little League, Woodmen of the World and the Mennonite Church, Rosenberg said.

Other companies that have Washington County stores but are based elsewhere gave varying reasons for not contributing to local volunteer fire departments and rescue squads.

Sears, which has a headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Ill., recommends a cause for all of its stores, spokeswoman Peggy Palter said. For many years, it was Gilda's Club, a national organization that supports people with cancer and their families. It was named after comedian Gilda Radner, who died of cancer.

Palter said the company recommends its chosen cause, but allows local store managers to make their own decisions.

Palter surmised that Sears doesn't give to fire departments because the company only supports registered nonprofit groups.

However, Matheny said fire departments are registered that way.

Hecht's - which has 79 stores including one at Valley Mall in Halfway - contributes to "civic and health and children's service (organizations), and the arts, and so on and so forth" through a company charitable foundation, said Diane Daly, director of fashion and communications.

Fire departments and rescue squads are not part of the mix because they are too numerous, she said.

"We don't (contribute) basically because of the sheer number of them in all of our market area," Daly said.

Hecht's made an exception after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for the Arlington County (Va.) Fire Department, which was one of the first responders after a hijacked jet hit the Pentagon. Hecht's, which is headquartered in Arlington, Va., gave the fire department $40,000, Daly said.

Service not valued?

Too many businesses - particularly out-of-state corporations - don't value fire and rescue service enough, Matheny said.

"If your building burns down, you'll look at us as a fire department, not a charity," he said.

Three years ago, The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway drew flak when it sent a fund-raising letter that said, "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 interpreted this as a veiled threat to donate - or else.

Shoney's Restaurant near Valley Mall was one of them, but later offered to hold a fund-raiser for the fire company.

Matheny said last week the fund-raiser - a "celebrity" serving event - was a decent gesture. However, 15 to 20 Halfway volunteers spent the night serving customers and raised only $433, he said.

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