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Commissioners vote to indefinitely suspend Fairplay fire company operations

July 31, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • Fairplay-area residents watch Tuesday as the members of the Washington County Board of Commissioners vote to suspend the Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. The commissioners' meeting room was packed with about 70 people who were on hand to listen to the discussion about Fairplay. The county set up a laptop computer in a conference room for others to watch a live stream of the meeting.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

The Washington County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday to immediately and indefinitely suspend the operations of Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.

A task force will work on a plan to re-establish the department, coming up with a plan, within three months, for letting the fire company continue. Commissioner William B. McKinley said the suspension is indefinite and reinstatement is not guaranteed.

The company has been failing in recent years to respond quickly to calls, especially during the day on weekdays.

A chart shows that the fire department had a “failed response” — it either didn’t respond within 10 minutes or didn’t respond at all — for 26.3 percent of its calls from Jan. 1 through May 31 this year. The “failed response” rate was 22.6 percent last year and 12 percent in 2010.

Kevin L. Lewis, Washington County’s director of emergency services, recommended the suspension to the commissioners, calling for a review after six months of whether the company can resume its operations.

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But McKinley said the task force could do its work in half that time.

McKinley and Commissioners John F. Barr, Ruth Anne Callaham and Jeffrey A. Cline voted in favor of the suspension, which includes the loss of county funding.

Terry L. Baker, the president of the commissioners, voted against the recommendation, which he called “quite drastic.”

Before the vote, Baker offered an alternate idea: putting the fire company on probation for 30 to 45 days.

If, after that period, the company didn’t improve its response times, Baker said, he’d support the suspension.

“I think they deserve a last chance,” he said.

Baker also said Fairplay should get the opportunity to speak on its own behalf through due process.

Bill Pennington, president of Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co., attended Tuesday’s meeting. But only Lewis and Dale Hill, the president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, were allowed to make a presentation to the commissioners before the vote.

Other commissioners took a harder line.

Cline said the goal needs to be creating a better fire department, “not specific loyalties.”

Barr said the punishment might hurt, but it needs to happen.

During an interview after the vote, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said the county provides $48,000 a year to Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. and pays for its utilities. That money will be divided among other fire companies that fill in on coverage in the Fairplay area, he said.

The commissioners cannot prevent Fairplay from continuing to get a share of tip-jar proceeds through the county’s Gaming Commission, Murray said. By law, half of the proceeds from tip jars goes to the Fire and Rescue Association to distribute to volunteer fire and rescue associations.

Hill told the commissioners he did not support the suspension. He agreed that there is “a very serious problem,” but he said shutting down the fire company for any period could be worse for the community.

Fire departments in Williamsport, Funkstown, Sharpsburg and Boonsboro are expected to pick up Fairplay’s calls, Hill said. They already have when Fairplay has responded late to calls or not at all.

Hill noted that a paid staffer started working Monday at Fairplay’s fire hall to provide daytime coverage.

The county commissioners tried in 2009 to get Fairplay to take that same step of allowing a paid staffer to work during the day. At the time, the commissioners threatened to cut funding and possibly decertify the company if it didn’t take steps to improve.

On Tuesday, the commissioners also agreed to let Fairplay’s insurance continue, allowing the company to continue holding events at its fire hall.

According to Lewis, the insurance is paid through the end of this year. The county pays that insurance, Murray said.

The task force that will work on getting Fairplay going again will have 13 members, according to Lewis’ written recommendation.

There will be:

  • Two representatives from Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.
  • One from the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association
  • One from the Washington County Division of Emergency Services
  • Four from other volunteer fire companies (one each from Boonsboro, Funkstown, Sharpsburg and Williamsport)
  • Five from people living in Fairplay’s response area, to be appointed by the county commissioners

The commissioners’ meeting room was packed with about 70 people who were on hand to listen to the discussion about Fairplay. Many applauded statements supporting reform of the fire company.

The county set up a laptop computer in a conference room for others to watch a live stream of the meeting.

How they voted

The Washington County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday to temporarily suspend Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.’s operations.

Terry L. Baker, no
John F. Barr, yes
Ruth Anne Callaham, yes
Jeffrey A. Cline, yes
William B. McKinley, yes

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