OCVFC Issues Rebuttal to City Manager Comments on Fire Issues

OCEAN CITY- Last week, in an exclusive interview with The Dispatch, City Manager Dennis Dare was generally civil but often blunt while addressing some of the confusion and misconceptions swirling about the future of emergency services in the resort, and more specifically its 102-year-old volunteer fire company, and this week the leadership of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company (OCVFC) responded in kind.

The apparent wedge between the city manager and the resort’s volunteer fire company grew wider last week with Dare’s published comments, and the gap did not likely close this week when the OCFVC introduced its rebuttal letter. OCFVC President James Jester and Fire Chief Chris Larmore dissected Dare’s interpretation of the current situation practically point by point and offered their own interpretation of the events of the last several months.

Cooler heads will likely prevail and an expanded cooperation between the city’s historic volunteer fire company and the smaller career fire company, all under the umbrella of some new chain of command, will likely be ironed out in the coming months. However, much will have to be done to soothe the wounds opened during the last several months, as evidenced by the interview with Dare last week and the strong rebuttal issued by the OCVFC leadership this week.

While all parties have agreed change is coming, and probably needed, questions about what those changes might be are at the heart of the issue, according to the OCVFC letter this week.

“Mr. Dare states that ‘there are changes ahead in 2008.’  What are those changes?” the OCVFC leaders questioned in the letter.  “Why are these changes known only to City Manager Dare?  Why is the OCVFC, which is formally tasked with fire ground responsibilities by the City Council, not privy to and not asked to participate in any such deliberations?”

Dare said last week he discussed measures to have a strong, combined department with Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald, but the OCVFC questioned the pair’s qualifications and/or experience to carry out the task. Instead, the OCVFC said in its letter it should be the agency to coordinate the combination, or at least be an invited participant.

“The OCVFC is confident that we, along with outside individuals experienced in the creation and/or management of combination fire departments, are the logical choice to formulate such a plan,” the letter reads. “Will Mr. Dare also admit that the OCVFC, the foundation of any such ‘combined department,’ was never asked to participate or even consulted in these discussions?”

Dare has said he merely suggested the now-famous “radical” plan to restructure the resort’s fire service as a series of talking points for the Mayor and council to discuss, but the concepts in the plan were quickly rejected and the plan was taken off the table. The OCVFC, however, said the plan resurfaced last month when it was presented to the full council.

 “Mr. Dare quickly withdrew his plan and stated it was ‘off the table’ and we trusted this withdrawal and presumed the issue was dead,” the letter reads. “To the astonishment of the OCVFC, that very same plan was presented to the Ocean City Council at their May 4, 2007 work session. Is this how Mr. Dare wishes to clear up ‘some misconceptions and confusion’? Was the OCVFC naïve in trusting City Manager Dennis Dare at his word?”

According to the OCVFC letter, the city manager does not entirely understand the concept of mutual aid in terms of firefighting. Instead, Dare has suggested the OCVFC’s declining membership numbers and the fact that most of its members do not live in Ocean City are reason enough to consider an expanded career fire company.

“The key word is mutual in this reciprocated agreement,” the letter reads. “Mutual aid is an intelligent and widely-used concept, not one that indicates weakness. Mr. Dare, and certainly Director Theobald, should know that this is standard and progressive nationwide fire service practice, including in our own Worcester County.”

The OCVFC leadership further suggests in the letter the current spirit of mutual cooperation between the volunteer company and the paid department is achieving the desired results.

“Do situations exist where the career component arrives first? Absolutely,” the letter reads. “Do situations exist where the volunteer component arrives first? Again, absolutely. Have situations ever existed where either the volunteer component or the career component cancels the response of the other because the situation found could be handled by who is already on the scene? Of course.”

The OCVFC letter enumerates the company’s contribution to the city’s fire service in the present and in the past with a strong emphasis on “we.”

“The OCVFC is a remarkably progressive organization,” the letter reads.  “We proposed the idea of developing a strategic master plan.  We established mutual aid agreements with fire departments to assist on structure fires on the north end of town.  We undertook the duty crew initiative.  We suggested a full time career engine company.  We suggested the target hazard pre-plans.  We suggested the idea of a fire commission.  We suggested a paid fire chief to oversee all fire/rescue/emergency medical services.” 

For all of those reasons, the letter suggests the OCVFC should be at the lead in the effort to create a combined paid and volunteer fire service in Ocean City, or at the very least, be a participant in the process.

“We suggested the creation of a true combination fire department,” the letter reads.  “We did this because there is no individual or group more competent, able, willing, and strategically poised to do so than the OCVFC.  Open-minded management would have the OCVFC as a participant in all fire service matters, and not simply a convenient resource.”

One of the sticking points in the battle between the OCVFC and the city manager has been the inclusion in the city budget, at least briefly, of the purchase of a new fire truck for a career component. Dare said last week the request came from Theobald but it was later removed when deemed it more appropriately be included in the OCVFC budget. Nonetheless, the OCFVC took the inclusion of a fire truck on the general budget as a further sign changes were afoot for the resort’s fire service.

“No matter how desperately Mr. Dare attempts to excuse the fact that Director Theobald’s request for a new fire engine was only a ‘talking point,’ the very fact that this proposed purchase was intentionally formulated in secrecy, and without the knowledge of the OCVFC, remains an obvious and deliberate affront,” the letter reads.

Dare said last week he had lost some respect for some of the OCVFC members individually during the current backlash of events, but had not lost respect for them for what they do as firefighters. His comments were directed largely at the OCVFC’s alleged leak of the “talking points” document to another media outlet in May. However, the OCVFC this week said it had no intention throwing the city manager under the bus.

“Let us make one thing abundantly clear.  The OCVFC did nothing to Mr. Dare except solicit his support, and speak the truth at every single turn,” the letter reads. “We acknowledged our strong points and initiated aggressive measures to correct our weaknesses. We have promised to move forward quickly on a variety of issues and, as acknowledged by both Mr. Dare and Director Theobald, have done just that.”

The OCVFC leadership suggests in the letter it is the city manager and not the volunteer fire company that has been acting in a clandestine manner during the last several months.

“The OCVFC operates in the sunshine. We have nothing to hide,” the letter reads. “Although the need for open communication is constantly emphasized by the Mayor and City Council, the OCVFC is granted no such reciprocity by City Manager Dare.”

The OCVFC letter states Dare mentions the now-renewed Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] in the context of transitioning into a combination department, but the volunteer company’s leadership rejects the notion.

“This is incorrect,” the letter reads.  “The MOU is a mechanism whereby a non-departmental supervisor, the OCVFC Fire Chief, gains entry into a city department [Fire/EMS] in order to ensure a continued high level of firefighting expertise.  The MOU does not grant fire ground responsibility to any organization other than the OCVFC.”

Dare said last week time was of the essence for the transition to a combined paid and volunteer fire service under one umbrella and said “we need to work together in the next six months to get it done.” The OCVFC leaders have shown a willingness to work together with a paid company and the resort’s elected officials, but questioned what exactly they were supposed to “get done” in six months.

“We ask, ‘To get what done?’  What does he mean by this implied threat?” the letter reads.  “Why doesn’t the OCVFC know what Mr. Dare intends to do in six months?  Why, after all that has already transpired, does Mr. Dare continue to operate in strict secrecy?  If City Manager Dare and Director Theobald know what is in store for the OCVFC ‘in six months,’ why don’t they say so publicly? The question now being asked with increasing frequency is, ‘Does Mr. Dare deliberately employ these intimidating tactics in a covert attempt to shatter the morale of the OCVFC membership?’”