City Manager Shoots From Hip On Fire Service’s Future

OCEAN CITY – City Manager Dennis Dare, the creator of a controversial set of “talking points” regarding the future of emergency services in Ocean City, made it clear this week he believes the future of fire protection in the resort lies in a cohesive combination of paid and volunteer forces.

In an exclusive interview with (ITALICS)The Dispatch, Dare, who has been city manager since 1990, was blunt at times while addressing some misconceptions and confusion regarding the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company (OCVFC) specifically and the future of emergency services in Ocean City generally.

In December of 2006, Dare authored a conceptual plan, which he called more of a “talking points” memo, that has been regarded by some fire company officials as the beginning of the end of the volunteer-based organization. This document has set off a firestorm of controversy, leading many to speculate about Dare’s intentions and claiming it’s a power grab by the city’s top ranking appointed official.

During the 90-minute interview on Wednesday, Dare said the intent of the city is not to “throw them off the island,” which the city manager reported was fire company officials’ initial reaction to Dare’s document during a meeting in January.

Dare said the media has erroneously reported that fire company leaders were unaware of this document’s existence. He said a number of fire company officials were presented the “talking points” in January. He said the leaders made it clear they would not support what it entailed. All but one of the fire company representatives turned the document back into Dare before exiting the meeting room that night, telling the city manager company membership would be outraged to read it.

“On Jan. 10, we met with [fire company officials] and we did some circle talking. We said how much we respect each other and all that stuff that to me is just going around in circles. I thought instead of continuing these meetings let’s throw stuff out that has some meat on the bones,” Dare said. “When I threw this down in front of them, I said I am going to give you something. You are either going to really like it or you are going to really hate it. All I want to do is show it to you. Anything you like we’ll agree to. Anything you don’t like, it’s off the table. So they had this in January and they said you are kicking us off the island. That was not it at all. What I want to do is make that organization better. … I said I want you to stay a viable organization because you are going the wrong way. If you like the results you are getting from what you are doing, keep on doing it because that’s what you are going to get.”

The document entailed nine points – the OCVFC budget be reviewed by Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald; the Fire Marshal’s Office would be transferred to the Department of Emergency Services; OCVFC would assume “first do” to all West Ocean City fire calls; a new division in Emergency Services would be created called Fire and Rescue Services; Chuck Barton would be promoted to Division Chief of Fire and Rescue Services; the existing lieutenant would be promoted to captain and new lieutenant appointed; OCVFC organization would remain as is with the point of contact now Barton, who would answer to Theobald; and town buys land, buildings and equipment from OCVFC needed for career company and OCVFC uses proceeds to build West Ocean City Keyser Point Road Station.

Dare said the “talking points” memo was a result of being told by the council to come up with a plan to continue the transition between the emergency services departments. He said it’s no secret that transition is taking place and has been outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding, which was signed by Fire Chief Chris Larmore and supported conceptually by all parties involved.

“The council said to me we want you and Joe Theobald to meet with the volunteer fire company and try to work out a solution and then bring it to us… We don’t want to be involved in it. We want you to work it out. On Dec. 19, Joe Theobald and I sat down and said, ‘What do we think it’s going to take to have a strong combined department?’ That document was a result of it,” Dare said.

At a meeting last month, OCVFC authorities came before the Mayor and Council looking for some answers after a media report detailed Dare’s “talking points” on the future of the organization. The council assured the OCVFC it will continue to be the authority over fire service in Ocean City, while also referring to the Memorandum of Understanding that calls for the gradual melding of the OCVFC services with that of the town’s Department of Emergency Services.

“That document in no way gave the authority to manage fire service to anybody other than us,” Larmore said at the mid-May meeting with the council. “As far as I can tell, there has been no change in the authority bestowed on the volunteer fire company for the last 102 years.”

Although some people have called it “radical” including Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan at last month’s meeting with the OCVFC, Dare believes a number of points he made in the proposal will eventually come true. However, it’s worth pointing out both Meehan and Council President Joe Mitrecic said at that May meeting the plan was “unacceptable.”

“The question is: how do we do that?,” Dare said. “I can’t emphasize enough that I do support the volunteer fire company. We need a viable volunteer fire company, but we are in transition. My goal is to make them as viable as possible. We do not want to be an all-paid fire company. We want a good combination department and my vision would be that the paid guys are going to show up at the alarm bells at the Plim Plaza … If there’s a serious fire in the laundry room, then the volunteers will come in. The volunteers want to fight fires, they don’t want to be doing paperwork and responding to false alarms.”

According to Dare, the town of Ocean City currently has 42 paid career firefighters/paramedics. Six more have been budgeted in the fiscal year 2008 budget, which has been approved on first reading by the City Council. At all times, throughout the year, Dare said there is at least a crew of three to four people working and paid by the city strictly for firefighting.

“The city doesn’t have any fire trucks or firehouses, but we have 42 paid firemen who are cross-trained between firefighter and paramedic,” Dare said. “So, when there’s a fire, the first people to respond are paid firemen. The public doesn’t know that. They just know there’s a fire truck that shows up, but those are paid guys. If tones go out that there’s a working fire, then all hell breaks loose and that’s when the volunteers start coming out to augment that because you need it. That’s what we need and we need that in the future.”

Contrary to some scuttlebutt floating around the resort, the city’s goal is not to have an all-paid, unionized fire department, Dare reiterated on at least four occasions in this week’s interview with a reporter.

“We need a strong combined department. Volunteers can’t do it by themselves. For the town, it would be more expensive to do it by ourselves. In fact, when you have a big fire you need the additional manpower and that’s when the Bethany Beach, Roxana, Bishopville, Berlin and the Showells come running. That’s the whole story of the volunteer fire companies – when someone is in need they all help,” Dare said.

As for what the future holds, Dare said there are changes ahead in 2008. In the meantime, it’s his hope officials can look elsewhere for assistance and guidance on how best to continue with combining the resources of fire service with the emergency services department.

“We are going to go through the summer operating like we always have. I hope they can supply their duty crew. If they don’t, it’s going to be up to the town to either hire more people or pay overtime to make up for that. If they can’t supply the duty crew, it’s their deterioration of what they bring to the table,” Dare said. “I think we need to look at some of these other combination departments that have been successful elsewhere and take not of what they’ve done. Cumberland is one example …”

Dare said it’s critical for a new city position, one that most certainly will carry a high salary, to be created to oversee fire service in Ocean City.

“We need a paid fire administrator or chief so that when these guys are working as a paramedic they are working for Captain Barton. If they are working as a firefighter, they are working for Captain, Chief or something or other,” Dare said. “This person would be responsible for the budget, the upkeep, the maintenance, the record keeping, the hiring, the evaluations, the training, etc. There has to be someone in charge and it can’t be someone that works on a popularity contest that changes each year.”

The following is a look at some other topics broached during the interview:

On volunteerism:

“Volunteerism in generally has gone down. With single parents now or both parents working, volunteerism has gone down all around and it’s the same with the volunteer firemen, You can’t have 300,000 lives and $11 billion worth of property and not have people who can respond in a timely manner to safety and well being. You can’t have it. That’s the Mayor and Council’s responsibility. The volunteers have told us they couldn’t do it. So that’s when we added eight more … we went up to the 42 [paid personnel] we currently have.

“Their membership is in decline. It used to be they had 125 members and there was a waiting list. When you need firefighters to fight a fire, there’s a limited number of firefighters who can do that anymore. There’s probably 20 people in the fire company that can really fight fires and there’s probably only seven of them that live north of 40th Street. In fact, any fire call north of Route 90 is a dual response with the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company because the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company can’t handle it. They acknowledge that.

“Their membership is going down and they’re moving out of Ocean City and now they’re moving out of West Ocean City, the ‘first do’ area, because of rising property values. The people that really fight fires live in Berlin, Salisbury, Bishopville, Showell … how can they respond to a fire in Ocean City in a timely manner? It’s tough. Some of them may work in town, and they can respond then, but 40 percent of the company lives outside the ‘first do’ area. I am not telling you these numbers because I want to bash the volunteer fire company. They are the reality and they know this. They would tell you the same thing.”

On the reported fire truck the city was planning to buy:

“When Joe Theobald submitted his budget back in November, he said we need a small truck. He put it in as a request for city vehicles, he also put in a request for six additional firefighters/paramedics … I said we have a vehicle trust fund with the fire company that the city has put in $1.25 million in it. The balance is that – it’s all city money. The volunteers never put their money in it. They keep it separately. When we have needed a fire truck, they typically write their check for half of it and we take our half out of this fund. … I said take it out but leave it on the list because it’s going to be a point of discussion when we get to the volunteers’ budget …

“Well, the union still had not ratified the contract, so there was some things we could not talk about until that happened. Unfortunately, that fire truck was still on the list, but not as being funded. It was at the bottom as a footnote. And Jim Hall, for whatever his reasons are, started asking me ‘what’s this fire truck about?’ I said it was a talking point. He said, ‘we don’t even have a firehouse. Where would we keep a fire truck?’ I am trying to answer him but he’s using me to create this stir. To find out later, it was a much bigger stir than just a fire truck.”

On volunteers assuming “first do” to all of West Ocean City:

“Don’t you think the volunteers ought to be the first responders in West Ocean City? Why should the taxpayers pay somebody to go out there? That’s all I am saying. It’s the volunteers’ responsibility and they are staying in bed, and the taxpayers are sending paid people out to Superfresh.”

On damaged relations:

Dare said for Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company Chief Chris Larmore to tell another media outlet that he was unaware of the “talking points” memo when he was presented it back in January is simply untrue.

“I confronted Chris about that and he said he misunderstood what the reporter was referring to. The fact is the fire company officials had the knowledge. They just didn’t share it with the rank and file. I told Chris, ‘what you guys did to me, I have lost some respect to you guys individually, but I still have respect for what you do as firefighters.’ Professionally, I am going to do what I need to do to get this combination department together because there’s 300,000 lives and $11 billion worth of property that needs to be protected. We need to work together to do it. In fact, we need to work together in the next six months to get it done. You have a six-month go of it. You have support from the council and support from your people. We have six months to get this [transition] done because by next Jan. 1 you may not be that person sitting in that chair.”

On council members being unaware of “talking points’ document:

“Nobody was aware of it until May 4. The mayor and the council president were aware of it … the council president is my first report. I told him and [Mayor] Rick [Meehan] back in December I came up with some radical ideas, one of which was in order for the fire company to build its West Ocean City station maybe we buy some of the property and equipment in town because we are going to some day need it.

“The unionization guarantees these firefighter/paramedics to be able to negotiate not only wages and benefits but working conditions. How can I assure them of their working conditions when I have no control over their working conditions?”

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.