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Fairplay vice president: Suspension was like 'a sledgehammer'

August 01, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

The vice president of Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. thinks the fire department’s suspension by Washington County was excessive.

“It was like trying to kill an ant with a sledgehammer,” Robert Moncrief said Wednesday.

The county commissioners decided Tuesday to suspend the fire company indefinitely because of its trouble responding to calls. 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. It had a similar rate last year.

The commissioners approved a recommendation by Kevin L. Lewis, Washington County’s director of emergency services, to suspend Fairplay and form a task force to look into reviving the fire company. The 13-member task force is expected to come up with a report within three months, after which the fire company can apply for reinstatement.

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James Sprecher will represent the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association on the task force, according to county spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher.

The representative for the county’s Division of Emergency Services will be Deputy Director Charles R. Summers.

The rest of the task force and a meeting schedule haven’t been determined yet, Sarah Lankford Sprecher wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners heard from both Lewis and Dale Hill, president of the fire and rescue association, before voting 4-1 in favor of the suspension.

Terry L. Baker, the president of the commissioners, who voted no, recommended 30 to 45 days of probation instead.

The commissioners also agreed to withhold payments to Fairplay. County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said the county provides $48,000 per year and pays for utility costs. According to a memo Lewis prepared, the utility expense last year was $22,316.

However, Murray and the commissioners said they could not prevent Fairplay from getting Washington County Gaming Commission tip-jar proceeds. By law, half of the proceeds each year go to the fire and rescue association, which shares the money with volunteer companies.

After association expenses and program costs are deducted, money is split evenly among the companies.

Hill said Wednesday that it’s up to the association to decide whether to stop sharing tip-jar money with Fairplay, but he doesn’t think that will happen because “the county hit ’em pretty hard.”

The fire company will need money to survive and get back on its feet, Hill said.

Moncrief said a financial penalty would have been enough to get Fairplay’s attention, but a suspension goes too far and will leave the area dependent on coverage by other fire companies.

Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. officials listened to Tuesday’s discussion at the commissioners’ meeting, but weren’t given a chance to comment. They did not stay for a subsequent public comment period in which several people alleged that personality conflicts and cliques have interfered with the company’s effectiveness.

Bill Pennington, the fire company’s president, and Leonard Heller, the fire chief, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Moncrief declined to comment on the accusations.

He said the fire company has had peaks and valleys in the number of active volunteers, and currently is down to about 20.

Although response times has been an issue in Fairplay for at least a few years, Moncrief said the fire company didn’t have much time to respond when the county presented specifics at a meeting on July 23.

It wasn’t until then that Fairplay officials heard from the county how bad the response rate was, he said.

The company responded by hiring a paid staffer, who started Monday, the day before the commissioners decided to suspend Fairplay’s operations.

Fairplay’s failure to respond to calls also was an issue in 2009, when the county commissioners gave the fire company an ultimatum — accept a paid staffer during daytime hours or face funding cuts and possibly decertification.

The Herald-Mailreported at the time that the fire company agreed to accept the county staffer.

But Moncrief said he doesn’t think that arrangement lasted long.

The recent hiring of a paid staffer was at the fire company’s expense, Hill said.

Other local volunteer companies also have turned to paid help.

Four years ago, The First Hose Co. of Boonsboro received a grant to hire a paid driver, Chief Oley Griffith said.

The grant covered 100 percent of the costs the first year, 75 percent the next, 50 percent the next and 25 percent in the fourth year.

This year, with the grant finished, Boonsboro decided to keep paying for the driver on its own. Griffith said the hours have changed, though — from five 12-hour days to six 10-hour days.

In Fairplay’s absence, Boonsboro, Williamsport, Sharpsburg and Funkstown are expected to fill the gap.

Those companies have been responding to Fairplay calls under a “dual dispatch” system the past few months, fire officials said.

Boonsboro will do more as long as it’s needed, Griffith said, adding about Fairplay, “I hope they get back on their feet.”

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