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Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. capabilities probed after memberships aren't renewed

November 14, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

FAIRPLAY -- The Washington County Division of Fire and Rescue Services is investigating whether the Fairplay Volunteer Fire Company can continue to adequately provide services after the memberships of several firefighters were not renewed Tuesday.

The situation could "potentially affect service delivery," said Kevin Lewis, director of the county's Fire and Rescue Services division. Officials will take "whatever actions necessary to ensure delivery," which might include working with mutual aid departments in the surrounding area to cover Fairplay, Lewis said.

As of Thursday morning, the Fairplay company had gone on 337 calls this year, Lewis said.

Companies in Sharpsburg, Boonsboro, Funkstown, Halfway and Williamsport have been put on dual assignments to help cover the Fairplay area, said Glenn Fishack, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

Fishack on Thursday could not provide the number of active firefighters still serving at Fairplay.

"The area is well-covered," Fishack said. "I don't think anybody down there needs to worry about their fire protection or anything like that."

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The three state prisons south of Hagerstown fall into the Fairplay company's coverage area.

Bill Pennington, president of the Fairplay Fire Department, said Thursday that those whose memberships weren't renewed had not paid their dues, which are to be paid each year in October.

"If you don't pay them (dues) by the 21st then you're no longer a bona fide member," he said.

The memberships of five people who weren't social members were dissolved Tuesday, Pennington said. Of those, three were what he considers active firefighters, he said.

Pennington defined active firefighters as members who live in the fire company's territory and are trained and able to respond to a fire.

The company's dues are $1 per year.

"I offered him a dollar. He said they decided not to renew my membership," said Terry Doyle, one of the volunteers called in to meet privately with Pennington Tuesday night.

Five of the firefighters whose memberships were dissolved Tuesday night and one who was suspended, spoke with The Herald-Mail Wednesday and Thursday.

Cory Lescalleet lives about two miles from the Fairplay station and has volunteered for the company for eight years.

"Pennington told me that the executive committee had discussed what they want in the membership and decided not to renew my membership this year," Lescalleet said. He said he was not given anything in writing, but was told that the committee wasn't kicking him out, it just wasn't renewing his membership.

Lescalleet works for the Hagerstown Fire Department as a firefighter full time, and works as a paramedic for Boonsboro Ambulance & Rescue, he said.

Todd Vest, who volunteered for Fairplay for 12 years, also was told his membership wasn't going to be renewed, he said.

Vest was told, "I was no longer a member. I had to leave the building right now," he said.

"We're trying to run a fire department, not a social club. We're there for the community, that's what we're concerned about," said Vest, who lived in Fairplay until about four years ago, when he moved to Maugansville. He works for the state Division of Correction's transportation unit.

Some of those whose memberships were dissolved notified Lewis and the Washington County Commissioners. The Commissioners are to meet with the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association Tuesday in a closed session, Fishack said.

Commissioner Kristin Aleshire said his primary concern was that "citizens in that area have adequate protection."

"This is not like closing the doors or being understaffed at the library one day," he said.

The association also was to meet with the affected firefighters Thursday night and with the fire company Friday, Fishack said.

The dissolution discussions Tuesday night were civil, said Robert Fraley, who said he lives about 300 yards from the Fairplay station.

Fraley said Pennington's first question to him was about a letter of complaint that had been sent to the Fire and Rescue Association. He said he did not write that letter.

Fraley said he and his son were given the option to stay with the company or leave. He decided not to renew his membership.

"Quite frankly, I really don't need the headaches," he said.

The membership dissolution was effective Tuesday night, said Mark Kopp, who has been volunteering with the Fairplay company for about five years. Kopp lives in Fairplay and works in law enforcement.

"We were way short-staffed before any of this, and when you get rid of three-quarters of what you had, we're in trouble," Vest said.

Fairplay Voluntary Fire Co. Chief Leonard Heller on Thursday did not return messages left at the fire station, his home and to his cell phone.

"Volunteers aren't going to let the community down, but as for access to equipment ... we're not sure where we stand," Fraley said.

Some of the firefighters saw a similar situation unfold in Fairplay more than a decade ago.

In 1997, an assistant chief and two other members were dismissed from the company, The Herald-Mail reported. At that time, Heller and Pennington said those dismissals were punishment for "severe" violations on the part of the assistant chief and insubordination by the others.

Those dismissed claimed it either was a power play that got them dismissed or they were being blamed for anonymous letters sent to officials, The Herald-Mail reported at the time.

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