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Fairplay Fire Co., task force reach impasse as sides dig in

January 30, 2013|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com

Five months of work by a task force looking into the operations at the embattled Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. resulted in a nearly inch-thick report examining the department’s response times, recruitment issues, inspections, equipment, leadership and 31 recommendations that the fire company would have to successfully meet before being reinstated.

The fire department responded with a nearly similarly-sized document outlining the department’s plans to rely on paid drivers to improve response rates, to look for grant money to pay for the drivers, recruiting college students for fire fighting help and offering incentives to firefighters who meeting monthly duty roster assignments.

The reports contain letters between attorneys and fire officials and government officials as the sides tried to work out the department’s problems. The work at times conveys a sense of cooperation, like when Bill Pennington, president of the Fairplay Fire Co., wrote in a note to Fairplay task force chairman Paul Miller that he was updating Miller on tasks that the Fairplay Fire Co. had been working on.

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“After receiving your email, I wanted to bring you up to date. Thanks Bill Pennington,” the letter read.

But often relations were strained between task force members and Pennington, as well as other Fairplay Fire Co. officials, and the Fairplay task force’s final report and recommendations includes a letter from Pennington where he outlines his feelings about the task force’s work.

“We have participated in the process hoping the task force would do good work. However, our membership’s perception is that despite our effort to provide a comprehensive plan, we have been treated by many members of the task force with disdain and disrespect making the process at times hostile and contentious,” Pennington wrote.

The problems facing the fire company came to a head Tuesday when the Washington County Board of Commissioners decided to no longer recognize the fire company and no longer provide it with any funding or in-kind services.

The action means Fairplay Fire Co. — which drew the attention of the county over its failed response rates to calls — will no longer be dispatched on any calls and the Fairplay community will instead be served by the fire departments from Williamsport, Sharpsburg, Funkstown and Boonsboro.

The commissioners voted in July to suspend Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. indefinitely for not responding quickly enough to all of its calls. Officials said 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 to May 31, 2012. The department said the problem with failed responses occurred mostly during the day and department officials were considering paid staff to work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. to address staffing shortfalls.

The task force’s final report details other response times for Fairplay Fire Co., like when it failed on 10 out of 36 calls - a 28 percent failed response rate -  in June 2012. The report also lists failure rates by month for Fairplay Fire Co. January through July in 2012. The high was a 40 percent failed response rate in February and the low was a 9 percent failed response rate in April.

The task force’s final report said Fairplay Fire Co.’s problems are partly related to the ineffectiveness of Pennington and Fire Chief Leonard Heller. The report points out that lack of direction from leaders in an organization results in new recruits becoming frustrated and quitting. The report further states that dictatorial leaders drive out volunteer firefighters.

The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association conducted an inspection of equipment and records at the Fairplay Fire Co. and the task force’s final report said Heller and other fire department personnel were “very cooperative” during the inspection. The fire and rescue association believed that while all the equipment “within their ability to inspect” met requirements, there were some issues, including the fact that breathing apparatus for firefighters at the department had no record of ever being tested, which could put firefighters’ lives at risk.

In its comprehensive plan to address issues raised by the task force, the Fairplay Fire Co. said it planned to create the position of a duty officer, whose job is to ensure that there is adequate staffing every day.

Department officials said they would also use a “When to Work” interactive website where department members would log in and designate when they will be available to work.

Besides moving to paid firefighters, department officials said in their plan that they will go to local colleges like Hagerstown Community College, Frostburg State University and Shepherd University to recruit students who would volunteer at the department in return for having free housing at the fire department.

“We have a large space that could be remodeled into bunk rooms, kitchen with eating area, lounge and bathrooms,” the plan states.

Firefighters who meet monthly duty roster assignments will be given two tickets for dinner and a movie and volunteers will receive hats and t-shirts for jobs well done, the plan states.

The task force said in its final report that the Fairplay Fire Co. plan did not address many of the task force’s recommendations.

“Although the plan contained a section of recruitment and retention and presented a list of incentives for personnel, it failed to research this subject thoroughly,” the task force’s final report said.

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