Fire company flush with cash and would share if asked

December 11, 2011|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU |
  • Jack Coffelt, president of South Hagerstown Fire Co., stands by an old friend  the 1951 Mack Trucks fire engine that was long in active service with the volunteer company and still runs, but is driven only in parades. Coffelt said the vehicle was a real firefighter in its day, being able to pump 750 gallons of water a minute. Nowadays, modern fire engines can pump 1,000 gallons a minute, Coffelt said.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Jack Coffelt is surprised Washington County government and other local funding authorities haven’t asked his South Hagerstown Fire Co. to share some of its wealth.

“If the county would take and talk to us — the county (Volunteer Fire and Rescue) Association or the County Commissioners — yes, we do have a little bit of money to help with the other companies,” company President Coffelt said.

That’s an unusual remark coming from a volunteer fire company these days, but then, so is South Hagerstown’s financial asset and liability statement.

By this past January, at the end of its calendar 2010 budget year, the volunteer-owned company had $627,803 in cash and investments, according to the annual financial statement South Hagerstown gave the county government.

The company listed no debts.

During 2010, the fire company received the $24,500 basic subsidy that the county government gives each of the six volunteer fire companies in Hagerstown, regardless of need.

In addition, the fire company received about $29,000 from the fire and rescue association. It distributes money from the county Gaming Fund in equal shares, regardless of need, to each of the 27 local fire and rescue companies.

In addition, the county government paid the fire company $8,268.04 as reimbursement for the amounts it paid for electricity, heating, and water and sewer service for its 409 W. First St. fire station. And, it received $3,000 from the city to maintain its fire station.

In all then, the fire company received $99,773.62 — including $64,768.04 in public funding, plus $4,408 in bank interest, and a $25,000 donation from a local family in memory of a longtime firefighter.

By comparison, the fire company spent $55,236.82 during the year, it said in the financial report to the county government.

So it finished the year $44,537.80 ahead. According to the numbers, all but $1 of that was deposited into South Hagerstown’s cash and investments, which rose to a total of $627,803.28.

The money has built up over the years, mostly because the company has spent carefully, Coffelt and South Hagerstown’s Treasurer Jerry Cunningham said.

Having so much money makes Coffelt feel “somewhat” guilty, given that many volunteer fire companies in the county are barely scraping by.

A need for volunteers

But there is a sad side to South Hagerstown’s wealth.

The fire company’s membership has dwindled so much that the company hasn’t had any volunteer firefighters to respond to alarms in the past two years.

Those who do respond are the paid firefighters the city fire department assigns to work out of South Hagerstown’s fire station around the clock every day of the year.

But the fire company itself hasn’t had any volunteers to send out since November 2009, according to city Fire Chief W. Kyd Dieterich.

Coffelt said the situation saddens him greatly.

South Hagerstown’s former “volunteer officers have found jobs elsewhere and have left the company,” Coffelt said. The company’s late president “Cecil Bittinger and others tried to get active people and just couldn’t. It is quite a problem.”

Right now, including Cunningham and himself, Coffelt said, the company has about eight to 10 volunteers who handle administrative duties around the fire station.

Some, like the 72-year-old Coffelt, have reached the age when they can no longer run calls. And, some are working-age people paid as firefighters in places as far away as Baltimore, Washington and Virginia.

Given the choice between a big bank account and volunteer firefighters, “I’d rather have 10 active volunteers anytime,” Coffelt said.

Not having them means the company hasn’t had to buy the expensive protective coats, pants, helmets, gloves and boots that other companies provide for their volunteers. The city fire department buys such turnout gear for the paid crew of firefighters it assigns to South Hagerstown and to each of the five other volunteer fire stations in Hagerstown.

Except for one, all of the other volunteer companies in the city have their own volunteer members who are fit, cleared to run and do respond to fire alarms.

The exception is Western Enterprise Fire Co., which hasn’t had any of its own volunteer firefighters to add to the city’s paid crews in more than four years — since April 2007, Chief Dieterich said. Western Enterprise disputes that, saying several of its members also belong to the other city companies, so they all should get credit any time any of them fight a fire.

Decades ago, volunteer firefighters throughout Hagerstown far outnumbered the city’s paid career firefighters, but the reverse is true today, Dieterich said.

The city fire department has 73 paid firefighters and is about to hire another, but will still have eight fewer paid firefighters than it did before the city budget cutbacks began more than a year ago.

And, Dieterich said that over time, the number of approved fit volunteer firefighters has dwindled.

He said there are only 47 volunteer firefighters now. They are among those originally recruited over the years by four of the volunteer companies — Antietam, First Hose, Independent Junior, and Pioneer Hook and Ladder.

The chief said recruiting more volunteer firefighters throughout the city “is certainly a goal. It is a goal to try to resurrect the volunteer side of the department.”

Dieterich said that besides recruiting volunteer firefighters, each of the companies contributes to the city’s firefighting efforts by keeping up their fire stations with bunk rooms, and eating and recreational areas so the city can house its paid crews there, and its garage bays for the city’s fire engines and ladder trucks, too.

And since the late 1990s, each of the six volunteer companies has contributed or pledged $100,000 or more to help the city buy the big apparatus, he said.

South Hagerstown, for instance, contributed $100,000 in about 2004 to help the city buy a fire engine to base at its fire station, and it spent about $30,000 more equipping the vehicle, he said.

Dieterich, whose father was an officer at South Hagerstown until his death in 2009, said the company has in the past few years “completely remodeled the bunk room and expanded it for the career staff” that the city stations there. “And, it spent a considerable amount of money providing a modern larger-capacity emergency standby generator,” he said.

Willing to help

Coffelt said he’d like his company to help in other ways, too.

“If the city would come around right now and say, ‘Hey, we would probably put another (fire engine) unit in your hall,’ I’m sure we’d have no problem — and would want to — of paying for that equipment,” he said.

South Hagerstown also might be willing to either have its public subsidies reduced or to give money to other companies, he said.

“A problem of handing out some of the money is, how do you do that? But it’s a possibility and I’m surprised the association hasn’t brought that up,” Coffelt said.

“Could a deal be worked out? Frankly, as president of South Hagerstown, I would say, ‘possibly.’ But I would certainly hope that these monies would be used in a proper way, not buying equipment they don’t need, not buying property they don’t need.”

Cunningham has another idea of how the company might help.
Having retired last year after nearly 30 years as a paid firetruck driver for the city, Cunningham said he is acutely aware of the city’s need for more firefighters.

He said there have been many times over the years when he drove a firetruck out of a fire station — as the only firefighter going to the fire.

“If you worked an engine company and there were no volunteers working with you or coming to the scene, you were it. Most car wrecks and stuff like that, the only other people on the scene with you was the ambulance people,” he said.

When the city government’s budget cutback began in 2010, “there was nine of us retired that were never replaced,” said Cunningham, who was among them.

“Now, if they have a couple extra guys, there’s two guys on an engine. If they don’t, you’re by yourself again,” he said.

So recently, Cunningham said, he suggested to South Hagerstown’s other members that they use some of their company’s money to hire one or two firefighters to work part time Monday through Friday during the day, when the city’s shortage of volunteers is most critical.

He said it would help the city’s staffing needs at a time when South Hagerstown can’t otherwise.

The fire company did have two young men show interest in joining recently, Cunningham said.

“By the time they can get all the basic (training) they have to have, it’ll take six months,” he said.

So, South Hagerstown’s members have begun exploring the possibility of hiring part-time firefighters for at least the meantime, he said.

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