Fire and rescue issue is older than Fairplay

October 06, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND

Paul Miller, who is leading a county investigation of the Fairplay Fire Co., is mission-oriented and not terribly concerned about whose toes must suffer in the name of the mission’s success. By now, those feeling the heat at the fire hall have noticed, which is why the lawyers are speaking up.

As Miller’s task force has methodically sliced and diced Fairplay over the late summer, the top officials at the company have apparently seen a great big wall with a whole lot of handwriting.

So department attorney Ed Kuczynski this week labeled the proceedings a “witch hunt” and suggested that in  some areas the task force is on shaky legal ground.

This legal saber rattling isn’t likely to impress Miller, or the task force as a whole. But how it plays with the “deciders” in county government remains to be seen.

After Fairplay’s response-times came into question, the county commissioners properly appointed a task force to get to the bottom of what had largely devolved into a war of words and cliques. The county also appointed Fairplay’s current leadership to the task force — a move that seemed counterintuitive at the time, but has since proved to be prescient in a “give a man enough rope” sense.

Everyone seems to agree that the troubles at Fairplay revolve around a split between the old leadership and new blood that was disenchanted with the traditional way of doing things.

Volunteer first-responders are increasingly volunteer in name only. They pride themselves on their professionalism as much as any paid outfit, and when denied a voice at Fairplay, some of them took their talents to other departments.

So Fairplay became a shell, it’s leadership intact, but with few left to answer the calls. None of this is terribly surprising, as departments evolve from community social hubs into crisp, professional response teams. The wonder is that it hasn’t happened more often throughout the county.

It’s hard to blame either side for acting in their own best interests. Moreover, the roots of this dispute have little to do with Fairplay, but are a direct result of a county that has failed year after year to fashion a modern, coherent fire and rescue network.

The time for that would have been — oh, maybe 20 years ago, when other modern counties began making some sense out of a touchingly bucolic but distressfully inefficient format for responding to emergencies that can’t wait.

Washington County, by contrast, kept looking the other way. While other counties were funding their departments with a designated fire tax, we kept — and keep — relying on voluntary contributions and games of chance.

So instead of responding to headline-making disasters, fire and rescue companies became the headlines themselves under the foggy boilerplate of “financial irregularities” that translated into the fact that someone had lost count of the gambling loot.

We’ve also seen town fire companies that couldn’t get along with their town’s rescue companies, when logic would dictate that they should be operating as one. We have nearly 30 emergency services companies that have historically contested turf and competed for funding. Some of these companies are within earshot of the another’s horn. How is that supposed to be efficient?

Commissioners through the years never seemed to care that firetrucks and ambulances would string out along the highway like Broadway lights at the scene of a fender-bender, or that companies would routinely send out trucks to pad their response numbers.

One fellow famously said that he was considering a move to a certain part of Washington County until he saw a marquee at the fire hall bragging that it had made 385 fire calls for the quarter; he decided not to move here, because, he said, the odds of his house catching fire appeared to be too great.

Things have improved through the years, but usually it’s been because the men and women of the departments have modernized from within — few reforms have come from the top down, and the disparity among the departments in terms of money, membership and professionalism remains with us.

So those inclined to blame one side or another in the Fairplay debacle should understand that a third culprit is in play for having allowed such a dysfunctional emergency-services environment to evolve to the point that these embarrassments have become far too commonplace.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.  His email address is

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