Struggling Delaware System Looks to Maryland for Answers

Dec. 9, 2008
Delaware's 60 volunteer fire companies struggle with slow response times, declining volunteerism and increasing demand for emergency services.

Seven years ago, Greg St. James was working in Washington, D.C., when terrorists attacked the Pentagon, and the image of firefighters and paramedics rushing to help victims spurred his sense of civic duty.

A voiceover announcer at C-SPAN, St. James went to the fire station in Rockville, Md., about six miles from his home in Gaithersburg, and trained to be an emergency medical technician. He volunteers about 20 hours a week making ambulance runs.

He works alongside dozens of other volunteers and career firefighters, all of whom are members of the Montgomery County Department of Fire and Rescue. The fire service in this densely populated county northwest of the nation's capital has evolved over the past 40 years from one dependent on a loose affiliation of volunteer companies into a county-run combination department.

"You can't just do things the same old way and be successful," said former Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr., who was appointed to the post after voters created the position four years ago. He retired in October.

As Delaware's 60 volunteer fire companies struggle with slow response times, declining volunteerism and increasing demand for emergency services, the model used by Montgomery County and others nationwide could provide a road map for change here.

"They do have the system that works," said Rick Clark Sr., president of the New Castle County Firefighters Association.

Over the past century, Delaware fire companies have grown from small, community-centered organizations that relied on volunteers to full-time operations with paid firefighters, million-dollar budgets and more than $70 million in combined savings, much of it from government sources.

Yet they remain fiercely independent and resistant to government oversight.

"The sticking point has always been: 'This is my sandbox, and if you want to play with my toys, it's my rules,' " said Andy Hall, president of Townsend Fire Company. "And that has been and still is and probably will be the way it's looked at, because nobody wants anybody to tell them what to do."

Volunteerism dwindles

Meanwhile, companies are feeling the pressure of a shortage of volunteers willing or able to spend their limited free time in training classes or answering calls. The result is that firefighters are too slow in arriving at one of every six structure fire calls, and ambulances often fall short of response-time standards set by the state a decade ago.

"Are we effective and efficient right now in the fire service? No," said Ed Klima, a volunteer and former career firefighter who is now director of emergency services at Dover International Speedway.

"The bottom line is we're not getting enough equipment to the scene as quickly as possible," he said. "The resources are there; they just need to be reallocated."

Fire companies nationwide face the same struggles, experts said.

"The whole country is outgrowing the capacity of the volunteer service," said Vincent Dunn, a retired deputy chief of the New York City Fire Department who now lectures and writes books on fire protection. "The rural areas are becoming suburbs and the suburbs are becoming urban, and the fire-protection system isn't keeping up with that."

The International Association of Fire Chiefs, a nonprofit advocacy group, suggests communities develop a strategic plan for fire service by looking at the current system's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Businesses devise such plans routinely, said Timothy S. Wall, volunteer chief of the combination fire department in Wallingford, Conn., and chairman of the association's Volunteer and Combination Officers Section.

"There's a point you realize you can't do it anymore because of response time or lack of volunteers, and you have to change," Wall said. "I don't agree with getting rid of the volunteer service and hiring everyone. And I don't agree with keeping a volunteer system that doesn't work."

Some progress on oversight

Many volunteer-run fire companies in Delaware are already combination departments because they employ firefighters and emergency medical technicians to handle calls during busy daytime hours.

What they have lacked is county- or state-based oversight with the authority to make difficult decisions about closing or moving fire stations, setting pay and benefits for paid firefighters and deploying trucks and manpower where they're needed, instead of where decades-old district boundaries and turf battles have dictated.

After years of debate, Delaware fire service leaders have taken tentative steps toward creation of such an authority.

An effort led by Warren Jones, president of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen's Association, would form an "executives council" of company leaders to set operation standards and policies. For example, such an authority could set training and experience standards for becoming a firefighting officer, he said.

"They've passed standards before, and one company decides not to do it, or a new chief comes in and decides not to do it, and there's no teeth to the standard," Jones said.

Under Jones' proposal, which would need General Assembly action, the State Fire Prevention Commission could provide enforcement of the council's decisions, he said.

However, critics worry the seven-member commission would not provide sufficient oversight because of its intimate ties to the volunteer service. By state law, three commissioners "shall be representatives of industry" from each county. Instead, six commissioners are former or current members or officers of volunteer fire companies or the DVFA, and one seat is vacant, though its former occupant was a fire company member.

Commission Chairman Marvin Sharp, a former president of Carlisle Fire Company and current member of several DVFA committees, said commissioners should come from the firefighting ranks so they understand relevant issues.

Klima, though, said the fire service needs an outside authority to make unpopular but necessary decisions.

Three years ago, he, Jones and four other leaders proposed an oversight authority for New Castle County's 21 companies. The idea went nowhere.

"We can't solve these issues ourselves, so the only way it's going to happen is to get pressure from somewhere else, either the public or government," Klima said. "I travel all over the country and work with all kinds of fire departments. These other places have skinned the cat, and we're still looking at it."

Montgomery County, as well as Howard County to its north, has married its county-paid firefighters and equipment with its traditional network of volunteers. Both have a county chief who oversees operations, finances, a chain of command and the efficient use of limited resources.

"The big advantage is it still gives the volunteers a lot of say," said Gerald Bennett, who became a firefighter in 1957 and is now chief of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company in rural Howard County.

In both counties, the companies maintain their individual identities and social functions. Montgomery County Division Chief Alan Hinde, who coordinates volunteers' work, said Delaware firefighters can do so, too, while still meeting their communities' changing needs.

"They have to break the typical way they've done things," he said. "Put your ego aside and think about who you're serving."

'Smoke and mirrors'

Forty years ago, Montgomery County residents were protected by 19 independent fire companies, much like Delaware is today with its 60 companies.

As the county population grew and volunteerism declined, the need for more coordinated oversight became apparent, said Peter A. Piringer, a longtime volunteer firefighter and now spokesman for the Department of Fire and Rescue.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, the county took on that role, first by establishing an oversight commission and later by making all career firefighters county employees.

Still, the volunteer companies foundered.

"They were still viable organizations, but they weren't carrying the load," Piringer said. "It was all smoke and mirrors."

In 2004, after outspoken volunteers had defeated previous attempts, county voters agreed to consolidate the volunteers under the county's authority.

Today, the county of about 931,000 people relies on about 1,000 volunteer firefighters, most of whom are still organized into 19 companies, to work with its complement of about 1,100 career firefighters and paramedics. The county sets basic training requirements for all firefighters and sets standards for officers, so a volunteer lieutenant has at least the same training as a career lieutenant.

The department has an annual budget of about $190 million. The county saves money on trucks and gear by buying in bulk, something Delaware companies have been largely unable to do because of different needs and tastes.

The county also monitors response times and call volume, then adjusts its deployment of manpower and equipment to meet changing needs, Piringer said.

"We're all about mileage and response times and the closest available unit," Piringer said. "If you want to blow the siren and wait 15 or 20 minutes for someone to show up, fine, but most people want the truck to be there in four to six minutes."

Even though volunteers aren't paid, their services aren't free, Piringer said. Active volunteers get an annual stipend of $300 to $600, and the county gives each company $5,000 for its annual awards ceremony.

The county employs Hinde to make sure volunteers' voices are heard and that neither volunteers nor career firefighters feel like second-class members of the system.

St. James, the volunteer EMT at the Rockville station, said that effort is working.

"This is our house," he said. "We know each other, and we want to be here." System continues to evolve

Just to the north, Howard County's department employs 381 career firefighters and relies on about 750 volunteers. Its budget is $54 million.

"It's harder and harder and harder for volunteers," said Capt. Shawn Utz, a career firefighter at the county's Long Reach station. "You put all these requirements on volunteers, it drives the volunteers out. But we'll always have volunteers."

The county has 11 fire stations: four owned and operated by the county, five owned and operated by volunteers and two owned by the county but operated by volunteers. The county provides at least one fire engine and one ambulance in each station, and volunteers supplement those with trucks bought through fundraisers and donations.

Howard County Chief Joseph A. Herr and others said the county's volunteer system evolved like Delaware's, with volunteers raising money and tending to their neighbors' needs. And, like Delaware, the resources haven't always kept up with population changes.

"Because of zoning changes and development, those fire stations aren't necessarily in the best location," said Battalion Chief Charles M. Sharpe.

But unlike Delaware, Howard County monitors response times and call volume. Recently, the county noticed an increase in calls in a suburban area between Ellicott City and Elkridge, so Herr added firefighters and trucks to the surrounding three stations until the county could build a new station in the growing area.

"As a society, we've come to expect certain levels of response and care," Sharpe said. "When that doesn't happen, you have to ask why."

Out in Lisbon, the all-volunteer station looks like any in rural Delaware: a couple of steel-clad buildings surrounded by homes, horses, cows and corn.

"Originally, it was a farming community with a few small businesses," said Chief Bennett, who joined the fire department at age 16. "As the businesses changed and the farms disappeared, you started losing people. Then they started planting little seeds, and houses started popping up."

The new residents, though, are often two-income families with long commutes to Baltimore or Washington, and little desire or time to volunteer at the fire station, Bennett said.

The evolution of Howard County's system has been difficult, Herr said.

"The biggest obstacle is the ownership issues," he said. "A lot of it is that internal conflict: 'I'm giving away something my dad built.' Or it's, 'Geesh, I don't know what to do here because we've always taken care of ourselves, but we can't do it anymore.' "

No change, leaders say

Delaware's fire service leaders said they'd be happy to accept more help from the state or counties.

"If the county wants to put an engine crew in here during the day, I'm all for it," said George Lamborn, chief of the Cranston Heights Fire Company. "It's not going to hurt my feelings."

New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, though, said the county is focused on recruiting and retaining volunteers.

"This is about doing our absolute level best to maintain a volunteer fire service," he said.

That's fine with most fire-service leaders, who bristle at the idea of giving up control. Ron Marvel, past president of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen's Association, said such changes would be too drastic.

"In Sussex County, the fire service has always been the heart and soul of the community," Marvel said. "When you change the management structure, you change the whole thing."

Besides, he said, most Delaware residents believe the volunteer system is working fine as it is and would resent paying more for an "improved" system, Marvel said. "The public thinks we've got a good service," Marvel said. "Now that the public's changing, they need to be educated if we want to keep a volunteer service."

Hank Smith isn't sure that will be enough. As deputy chief for emergency medical services at Christiana Fire Company, Smith said he can't get enough trained volunteers to handle the company's heavy load of calls. The system needs to change to compensate for that shortage, he said.

"There's not a willingness to admit there's a problem," Smith said. "It would take the county or the state to say, 'This is what we're going to do.' I'm only 42, but I don't know if I'd see that in my lifetime."

Republished with permission from The Delaware News Journal

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