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Fairplay fire company fracas a symptom of other woes

November 24, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Every couple of years, for the past three decades, a brushfire of sorts has broken out in one of Washington County's fire houses, and for every couple of brushfires the County Commissioners have vowed to get a handle on the independent, decentralized emergency services system that creates these brushfires in the first place.

They never do, of course, but it usually leaves them with a nice new study to place on a shelf, so at least the consulting industry economy gets a boost.

It would all be rather amusing, were life and property not on the line.

Firefighting in Washington County is all over the board. Some companies are stunningly efficient and professional, while others are glorified social clubs that happen to own a couple of fire trucks -- or as they say in the business, "apparatus."

Community ambulance companies are often separate from fire companies, and as we've seen, the two don't always get along. Some companies are ridiculously close to each other, while some areas of the county have little coverage at all. Most emergency-services companies want county money, but they don't want to give up local control.

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In short, it's a mess and will continue to be a mess until the county decides to step in.

The latest meltdown comes courtesy of Fairplay, where the memberships of some volunteers -- who apparently posed a potential threat to the entrenched leadership -- were not renewed.

The cover story was that these firefighters did not pay their dues. But then it turns out that the annual dues are only $1, which causes that spin to go up in smoke.

Serious firefighters have weighed in, saying the company is more interested in society than in professionalism. They cringe when behavior at the fire halls is more endemic of a sorority than a highly trained response team.

While that may seem odd, it pays to remember that these outfits have traditionally -- along with fire fighting -- been the social hubs of the communities they serve. It also pays to remember that there is some value in that, especially as people in today's electronic age become more and more isolated.

The challenge is to make the companies as professional as can be, without simply converting them into cold, bureaucratic outposts that are unwelcoming to the public and public gatherings.

The other challenge is to create a uniformity of service without penalizing those companies that have a stellar record of operation. Some companies are probably operating more efficiently without county control than they could with it. Others are scary close to operating on a wing and a prayer, due to poor management, a lack of funding, a lack of volunteers or all three.

The commissioners are understandably shy about mixing it up with this emergency services hot potato, in part due to politics, and in part because the issues are so multifaceted and complex.

But the bottom line is that fire and rescue companies have had three decades to right their own ship, and for whatever reasons, have been unable to do so. Instead, we continue to hop from one scandal, or pseudo-scandal, or catfight to another, with no resolution in sight.

The county needs to be that resolution, and if that steps on some well-meaning toes, it cannot be helped. Clearly there is a divide between the uber-professional firefighters who are dead-serious about their work, and those who fondly remember the more casual days of yore.

There are also divides between the haves and have nots, divides in funding mechanisms, divides in turf, divides in billing procedures -- the list goes on and on.

Those who live far out in the country can never expect the same level of service as those near population centers, but the goal should be reasonably equal protection for every county citizen at a reasonably equal cost.

For this, the county's first step should be a systemwide audit -- and this means an accounting of every last penny in and out of the system, not just some shallow report by a disinterested consultant out of Utica, or somewhere.

Good reporters are always taught to follow the money, and when considering an overhaul of the county fire system, this is a useful axiom to employ. A lot of companies would not be happy with a strict accounting, and there's a reason for that: Something is going on that, even if not technically wrong, would cause public embarrassment.

Those companies that are scrupulous in their operations and aces in their fundraising might also be reluctant, if only because they fear that the county might take a role as "redistributor in chief" and try to use their money to prop up other, poorer companies.

Be that as it may, a professional accounting of the system is key, if we are ever to achieve a truly professional, countywide firefighting network. We might long for the days when volunteers were plentiful and when fire halls were buzzing hubs of community activity.

But those days are waning, and there is too much money, too many lives and too much property at stake to pretend otherwise.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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