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Fairplay Volunteer Fire Company makes its case

Members voice support for Fairplay president, chief

February 09, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • The Washington County Commissioners are expected to decide Tuesday whether to suspend Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.'s operations.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

FAIRPLAY, Md. — The president of the Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. said he thinks the fire company should be reinstated and that he didn’t understand why the Washington County Commissioners voted 4-1 almost two weeks ago to no longer recognize it.

“I think they need to have an awakening,” Fairplay President Bill Pennington said.

“I don’t understand how or why they would take that kind of action,” he said Wednesday night as a group of 27 Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. members met with The Herald-Mail in the fire company’s banquet hall.

During the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, several fire company members spoke out in support of Pennington and Fire Chief Leonard Heller.

The Herald-Mail was presented with a letter, signed by 38 fire company members, that states “our membership is vehemently opposed to any recommendation which requires the current administration and/or membership to step aside or resign.”

The commissioners voted Jan. 29 to no longer recognize the fire company, and to no longer provide it with funding or in-kind services. The vote came six months after the fire company was suspended from responding to fire and emergency medical calls because of a 26 percent rate of failing to respond in a timely manner to calls from Jan. 1 to May 31, 2012.

Pennington said the commissioners’ decision that day “shocked” him, while Heller said he was “disappointed.”

“The problem really had to do with the EMS calls,” Pennington said.

In particular, the problem was responding to daytime EMS calls on weekdays, according to fire company officials and statistics.

Many of the fire company’s members are at work during that time, Heller said last July after learning the commissioners were going to consider suspending the fire company.

Since the fire company was suspended by the commissioners July 31, first-due emergency service response to the Fairplay district has been split among fire companies from Sharpsburg, Boonsboro, Williamsport and Funkstown.

Those companies will continue to serve in that capacity and the county will provide temporary medical support service to the Fairplay area until a permanent solution can be found to serve the 42-square-mile area, Washington County Director of Emergency Services Kevin Lewis said.

Around Feb. 25, an advanced life support chase vehicle, staffed by paid and volunteer personnel, will be stationed at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center on Sharpsburg Pike, Lewis said.

A meeting will be scheduled with volunteers who live in the Fairplay area and had expressed an interest in joining Fairplay, as well as with other interested volunteers and people with current licenses living in the Fairplay community, Lewis said.

The advanced life support chase vehicle is a level above what Fairplay had with its Special Unit 12, Lewis said.

Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. does not have an ambulance, and before its suspension used the Special Unit 12 vehicle to serve as a first responder to medical calls, Pennington said. Fairplay responders would assist ambulance crews with tasks such as helping to carry gurneys or carrying backboards, he said.

Susan Hoffman, a Fairplay volunteer who helps with fundraising, said if the county had supplied a chase vehicle to Fairplay last summer, “this” could have been avoided.

“It’s like they didn’t want to help,” Hoffman said.

Lewis said Thursday that one of the options Fairplay presented last summer was for the county to fund and provide an ambulance or support system to reduce Fairplay’s EMS call volume.

Lewis said providing that service for Fairplay would have made the other five fire departments, which provide similar services to Fairplay, eligible for the same thing.

“The other departments (were) providing similar services without county support,” Lewis said.

“The issue surrounding Fairplay and some of the things that were addressed, even with the study, were more than just the response to EMS,” Lewis said. The issue also involved Fairplay’s failure response rate for fire calls, he said.

The people who will staff the chase vehicle at the ag center will have both medical and fire suppression training, Lewis said.

From Jan. 1 to May 31 last year, the fire company had “failed responses” for 26.3 percent, or 44 out of 167 calls, according to statistics provided in the Comprehensive Plan of Fairplay Volunteer Fire Department for Reactivation and Response to Task Force October 15, 2012, Draft Recommendations.

A “failed response” indicates the fire company either didn’t respond within 10 minutes or didn’t respond at all.

During that period, Fairplay failed to respond in a timely manner to 34 medical calls (20.3 percent of its medical calls) and to 10 fire calls (or 5.9 percent of its fire calls), according to notes in the comprehensive plan for a July 23 meeting between officials from the fire company, the county Division of Emergency Services and the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association.

Those notes state Fairplay ranked first in failed responses for both fire and medical calls.


A show of support

A task force was formed shortly after the commissioners’ suspension vote last July to work on a plan to re-establish the department and to come up with a plan for letting the fire company continue to operate.

At the time of that vote, Commissioner William B. McKinley said the suspension was indefinite and reinstatement was not guaranteed.

One of the task force’s 31 recommendations for Fairplay to be reinstated was for the fire company’s administration to “be removed and new administration be put in place.”

Last Tuesday, at least three county commissioners — McKinley, Jeffrey A. Cline and John F. Barr — said they would support a fire company in Fairplay with different leadership. Commissioners President Terry L. Baker was the sole commissioner to cast a dissenting vote on the motion to no longer recognize the Fairplay fire company.

“As much as I respect my fellow commissioners, I’m not going to tell them to replace their leadership,” Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said Friday. She encouraged Fairplay’s membership to “closely examine their vision, mission and leadership, and come up with a workable plan” to re-establish trust with their community, she said.

David Grabill, the fire company’s treasurer, said last Wednesday that when someone asked him why Pennington and Heller won’t step down as president and fire chief, he said, “We won’t let them.”

“We voted them in. The membership wants them,” Grabill said.

When Pennington and Heller were asked Wednesday night why they wouldn’t step down — regardless of whether it was right or wrong, fair or unfair — in order for the Fairplay community to again have an active fire department, the two were silent for several seconds before several members of the fire company spoke up on their behalf.

“Because we put them in there. We want them in there,” Grabill said.

The general sentiment at the meeting Wednesday night was in favor of Pennington and Heller as the fire company’s administrators.

“To have this here, this is constant work every weekend,” Pennington said after several members spoke up in support of him and Heller.

Many volunteers are at the Fairplay fire complex on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays working to raise funds for the fire department, he said.


‘Proof’s in the pudding’

Bob Moncrief, the fire company’s first vice president, said the fire company’s annual bills are more than $300,000, and the fire company received only $48,000 per year from the county.

“The proof’s in the pudding. We’ve already proved we can do what we’ve done,” said Pennington, referring to the fire company’s fundraising and finances.

“We’ve already proved we can start from nothing and build a multimillion dollar asset. They’re welcome to do the same,” Pennington said, referring to a group of 78 people who applied to join the fire company if its administration were changed.

During a Jan. 7 task force meeting, task force member Charlie Summers said he had been presented with applications from 78 people who said they would like to be members of the Fairplay fire company, but only if there was a change in its administration.

When asked if Fairplay had met all of the task force’s recommendations, except for changing the fire company’s administration, Pennington said, “Pretty much” and Heller said, “mm-hmm,” indicating an affirmative response.

Summers, deputy director for the county’s Division of Emergency Services, said Thursday the fire company “took a stab” at some of the recommendations.

“I don’t think they’ve complied to many of them, let alone the one about change in leadership,” Summers said.

Summers said the fire company’s comprehensive plan, in response to the task force’s work, “lacked in numerous aspects” and was not what the task force had expected.

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