Washington County Commissioners may suspend Fairplay Volunteer Fire Company operations

July 29, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Fairplay Volunteer Fire Company
File Photo

FAIRPLAY, Md. — Amid concerns about Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.’s ability to respond to emergency calls, the Washington County Commissioners will consider on Tuesday whether to suspend the fire company’s operations, according to county officials and a presentation document for the commissioners’ meeting.

The concerns are mostly about Fairplay’s ability to respond to daytime weekday and emergency medical service calls, something fire company officials expect to improve by paying to have an emergency medical technician/driver work out of the fire hall from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting Monday, Fairplay Fire Chief Leonard Heller said Sunday.

From Jan 1 to May 31 this year, Fairplay “failed 44 times out of 167 service requests, representing a 26.3 percent failure rate,” according to a presentation document for Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting.

A failure to respond does not mean the fire company didn’t respond at all, but that, at least, it didn’t respond within 10 minutes of the initial service call, said Kevin Lewis, the county’s director of emergency services.

Since 2010, another fire company has been dispatched on initial fire calls within Fairplay’s service area during the day on weekdays, Heller said. Fairplay is not an ambulance company, but is sometimes called to assist an ambulance company on medical calls, he said.

“It’s hard for us. All our volunteers have other jobs during the day,” Heller said.

“Basically, (we’re) going to have to start paying people during the day to assist us during calls,” Heller said.

“We made arrangements to do something as of Friday night,” said Heller, who said he learned about the commissioners’ scheduled vote when the agenda for their meeting went online Friday afternoon.

On Sunday, Heller’s plan to have a paid provider at the Fairplay fire hall during daytime weekday hours received approval from the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association’s executive board, Association President Dale Hill said.

“I believe that what they’re attempting to do would resolve a great deal of the failed responses out of the station during the weekday daytime,” Hill said.

County Commissioners President Terry Baker said Sunday night that he did not support suspending the fire company at this time and that it would be more appropriate to put Fairplay on probation.

“They are a volunteer fire company. We should be here to help the volunteer fire companies, not crush them, kick them to the ground,” Baker said.

Hill said the association is not requesting the suspension.

“We’re attempting to work out some type of an agreement or something that may, let’s just say stop the suspension. Because I don’t believe we can back any type of suspension for any fire department or put them out of service,” Hill said before the association’s executive board approved Heller’s plan on Sunday.

Hill said he was concerned about the domino effect suspending Fairplay could have because surrounding fire companies would have to provide coverage to the Fairplay area.

The recommended motion for the commissioners includes withholding county and state funding from Fairplay, and reviewing a plan for the fire company in six months to determine if the company’s operations can continue, according to a presentation document.

“I just, personally, think six months would put them out of business. That’s just my feeling,” Baker said.

“They’re volunteers ... I’m not so sure I could volunteer in my community and know that I’m going to be sanctioned for six months,” he said.

During a probationary period, the county would monitor the fire company and give it 45, maybe 60 days to see if it has made progress, Baker said.

History repeated

This is not the first time county officials have been concerned about Fairplay’s ability to respond to emergency calls.

In March 2009, the commissioners gave the fire company a week to accept the county’s offer to add a paid county staff member to the company during daytime hours because it failed to respond adequately to 13 of 22 calls in February 2009, according to Herald-Mail archives.

The fire company accepted that position from the county.

Lewis said that a person from the county’s special operations department worked at the Fairplay fire company for about two months, until Fairplay could improve its staffing.

The issue came up again when county officials reviewed Fairplay’s response to emergency calls at the end of 2011, and did a review of calls from Jan. 1 to May 31 this year, Lewis said Sunday.

Fairplay’s 26.3 percent failure rate during that five-month period represented almost 49 percent of the 90 failed responses throughout the county during that time period, according to the presentation document. The next- closest failure rate for a fire or ambulance company was 5.1 percent based on the failure to respond to seven of 137 service requests, according to the document.

Fairplay is not an ambulance company, so on medical calls it provides a first response, Lewis and Heller said. That first response consists of providing basic life-support skills such as CPR and bandaging, Lewis said.

Including some recent additions, Fairplay has 21 active members, Heller said. Of those 21, 13 have medical training, he said.

Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.’s primary service area goes roughly from College Road to the north to Taylors Landing Road to the south, and from Downsville Pike to the west to the bridge at Devil’s Backbone Park to the east, Heller said. Fairplay’s primary territory includes the state prison complex south of Hagerstown, he said.

Fairplay is an unincorporated rural community south of Hagerstown.

Fixing the problem

Fairplay fire officials met with representatives of the fire association and county Division of Emergency Services, including Hill and Lewis, on July 23, officials said.

Heller said Fairplay officials were asked at that meeting if they had plans to provide career, or paid, staffing.

“We just told them we don’t have the funding right away,” Heller said.

“We didn’t know it was this bad,” Heller said of the recommendation for the commissioners to suspend Fairplay fire company’s operations.

Heller said money will be pulled from elsewhere in the fire company’s budget to cover the cost of paid personnel. Heller said he did not know yet how much the paid services would cost or what area of the budget would be cut to cover those expenses.

Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department is going to aid Fairplay at first, providing personnel Fairplay can pay for daytime weekday coverage, Heller said. Meanwhile, Fairplay fire company will advertise for part-time professionals, he said.

Fairplay fire officials will need to hold more fundraisers to offset the additional cost, Heller said.

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