Speakers Outline How They Set Up Their Fire Service

OCEAN CITY – Five speakers were present at a meeting between town officials and the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company (OCVFC) this week, providing the town with a history of how other fire services have handled the struggles that Ocean City is presently enduring.

Representatives and fire chiefs from Baltimore County, Montgomery County, Salisbury and Virginia gathered Monday for an all-day work session that gave town officials and members of the public a brief look at how other fire departments have worked in recent years to overcome the issue that Ocean City now faces, the future of fire service. After eight hours of presentations, one thing remains clear; Ocean City’s struggle for a combination fire service is certainly not unique, as many other area fire services have struggled and continue to struggle with combination fire service.

The following is a brief look at the obstacles other counties have faced.

Montgomery County

Two representatives of the Montgomery County fire services were present at Monday’s meeting, Paul Sterling Jr., president of the Maryland State Fireman’s Association, and current Montgomery County Fire Chief Tom Carr.

Sterling kicked off the full day of presentations with an outline of the 40-plus years that Montgomery County has struggled to create a strong combination fire service.

“It’s interesting that as early as 1964, there was a combination fire department,” Sterling said.

Sterling traced their struggle back to 1964, when “there was an effort by the county government to take over the volunteer fire service.” The result was a mass of public outcry. Over the next 40 years, Montgomery County saw many changes. Sterling explained that a variety of bills were passed over the years, with some garnering support from the public and some not. Control of fire services also changed over the years, evolving from a fire board to a fire administrator to a fire chief. In May 2004, the position for one fire chief was created to oversee all of the fire services, including the 35 stations and 19 volunteer departments.

Sterling outlined a variety of reasons for the success of Montgomery County’s combination fire services. “It’s very important for the volunteers to speak with one voice,” he said. Sterling also noted a good relationship with the community, a strong corporate identity, standardized training, and a clearly defined chain of command as necessary factors. ‘The bottom line is service to our citizens,” he said, noting that no matter the situation or the emotions involved, service to the community remains paramount.

Carr, the first fire chief for Montgomery County’s combined fire services, stressed the importance of, “open, honest, respectful communication,” highlighting it as the key to success.

Carr explained the evolution of one fire chief in Montgomery County, reinforcing the need for leadership.

“Really what happened was we needed one vision…it became very difficult to keep things straight without one vision,” he said,

Once the position of fire chief was established, the operational level was examined.

“As an organization we looked at how we are going to sound the same at every call. Getting a consistent command presence was critical,” said Carr.

Policy, education, expectations and evaluations were outlined in an effort to create unity. “We wanted to get everybody on the same page, you would not believe the impact of this,” Carr said.

In an effort to create unity, all training, whether volunteer or career, became standardized. “You’ve got to train together, train like you fight and fight like you train,” said Carr.

A 10-year master plan was also developed, outlining the organization from top to bottom. A yearly strategic plan, based on the ultimate goals of the master plan, is created each year in an effort to keep the goals and expectations clear.

“It’s very critical to our success because prior to this, we weren’t singing off of the same sheet of music,” said Carr.

Salisbury

Salisbury Fire Chief David See, who saw the Salisbury Fire Department through many of the same problems and changes that Ocean City now faces, presented a brief look at how the Salisbury Fire Department evolved.

“We have gone though an evolutionary process for the last several decades,” See said, referring to the years of struggle that the Salisbury Fire Department faced. Controversy began as early as the 1950’s, when a small career staff was hired.

The pinnacle of the struggle occurred when one fire station made the decision to completely break away and operate independently.

“That was an extremely difficult time for our organization,” See said, referring to it as “war time.”

Ultimately the situation was resolved and the station did not break away, but as a result of that struggle, a city ordinance was drafted in August 2004, fully identifying the Salisbury Fire Department. “It really spells out who the Salisbury Fire Department is from A to Z,” he said.

Currently, the Salisbury Fire Department has three separate volunteer stations. “We have a great relationship with all three volunteer corporations,” See said, explaining that year-to-year work contracts are negotiated in an effort to keep all concerns and issues current.

A strategic plan is also in place for the Salisbury Fire Department, which was put in place in 2001.

Like Carr, See outlined the importance of communication in their success. “Communication is key and crucial to the success of any organization, especially when it’s going through a time of evolution.”

Baltimore County

Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman spoke as well on Monday, explaining the unique, dual fire service in Baltimore County, which consists of 25 career stations and 35 volunteer, independent, non-profit stations.

“Our department is some sort of hybrid that really has not been defined,” Hohman said. “It evolved that way going back 125 years.”

In Baltimore County, each of the 35 volunteer stations operates independently but under the umbrella of the Baltimore Volunteer Fire Association. Each volunteer station works independently, with loose governing from the county. The volunteers submit a budget each year to the county, with funds distributed through the association. Although volunteer and career fire service is completely separate in Baltimore County, Hohman reported that all of the 35 volunteer stations have career firefighters volunteering there during off-duty hours.

Although the dual system has worked well in Baltimore County, Hohman admitted that rivalry and emotions are always going to be an underlying problem, acknowledging the tendency for competition among stations.

“Where’s the line drawn between being aggressive and being stupid? You’ve got to have leaders and you’ve got to instill in them that we’re not playing any games,” he said, explaining the importance of strong leadership.

Hohman also acknowledged the occurrence of radical leadership.

“What happens is those leaders, they don’t last long. Nobody wants to be a part, for long, of an organization that’s divisive,” he said.

Hohman identified open, honest leadership and proactive thinking as contributing factors to their success.

“We spend a lot of time talking about what makes our system work so well,” he said.

Hanover County, Va.

Division Chief Eddie Buchanan presented Monday’s panel with Hanover County’s recent transformation to a combination fire service.

“Over the past few years, we’ve done a whole bunch of merging,” said Buchanan, explaining the merging of fire and EMS and later career and volunteers.

Divide between career and volunteer firefighters did not become an issue for Hanover County until 10 years ago when the first career men and women were hired.

“We put off hiring career firefighters as long as we possibly could,” said Buchanan.

Contention inevitably grew, leading to the decision to become a combination fire service.

“When I say combination, I mean that in the truest sense,” said Buchanan, noting that when a fire truck arrives on scene, there is no difference between volunteers and career fire fighters.

Although Buchanan reported that their combination fire service is running effectively and smoothly today, he noted that turmoil and emotions ran high for many years.

“The emotions, the outright change, taught us a lot,” Buchanan said.

Hanover County’s fire service remains under the control of one fire chief and has for the past 40 years, due to a city ordinance that calls for one chief.

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