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City fire funding complex matter

that's a bare fact

March 31, 2012|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com
  • Kyd Dieterich is chief of Hagerstown Fire Department. He volunteered in the 1970s at Pioneer Hook and Ladder fire company, seen behind his right shoulder.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Hagerstown Fire Chief W. Kyd Dieterich likens the financial complexity of the city’s firefighting operations to what he says is “an example everybody can relate to — toilet paper.”

Some time ago, Dieterich said, a man at one of the city’s volunteer-owned fire companies raised a basic question.

The man knew that city government pays the salaries of a core group of career firefighters it assigns to each of the volunteer-run stations.

So, Dieterich said, “he asked me, ‘Why do we (volunteers) have to buy toilet paper for city firefighters ...?’”

The chief’s answer: “I don’t know, but I can tell you when I joined 40 years ago, that’s how it was and that’s how it still is. I don’t know. So, that’s how it is — clear as mud.”

The financial muddle is rooted in the 1800s when there was no citywide fire protection, Dieterich said. Back then, he said, neighborhoods had their own volunteers using hand-drawn and later, horse-drawn, apparatus.

Each neighborhood paid for its own fire protection needs and it wasn’t until later, when they all recognized the need of a citywide firefighting command, that the city government formed a fire department, Dieterich said.

But the structure stayed roughly the same, with separate lines of financial support and joint lines of firefighting command.

The city fire department’s leadership team supervises the firefighting efforts and training requirements, “but the companies don’t answer to me how they spend their money,” Dieterich said.

The city fire department also is responsible for buying all of the fire and ladder trucks used in the city.

Since 1995, when Maryland law set up the county gaming fund that benefits fire and rescue, each of the city companies has gotten a share. And each has helped or pledged to help the city pay for the apparatus at its station.

Four of the companies still own their station and two of them use stations the city owns. The city gives each of the six companies $4,500 a year to help pay the maintenance costs.

“I’m not complaining,” Dieterich said of the financial twists and turns. “It’s just that how things work is very fuzzy sometimes. Some of the reasons why we do things don’t make sense anymore.”

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