Friday, February 15 – Council Split On Chief, Plans Strategic Retreat

OCEAN CITY – The Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company (OCVFC) went head to head with the Mayor and City Council this week in an effort to resolve lingering issues hindering the combination of the OCVFC and career fire fighters in Ocean City. Although headway was made with a unanimous decision to hold a strategic retreat, ground was lost when a 3-3-1 vote among the council denied the OCVFC’s request to be united under one fire chief.

The ongoing issue has run a tenuous course in Ocean City over the past year as efforts have been underway to create a combination fire service in Ocean City, one that many hoped would utilize both the volunteer and the career fire fighters.

On June 13, 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed and put into affect between the OCVFC and the Town of Ocean City Emergency Services Department. The purpose of the MOU was to incorporate the OCVFC Chief, Chris Larmore, with the Division of Fire/EMS, to give Larmore equal authority to the Director of Emergency Services, Joe Theobald, and to formalize the partnership between the two organizations. Essentially, the MOU brought the realm of fire/EMS services under the control of two men, Theobald and Larmore.

On Dec. 13, 2007, the MOU expired without extension, leaving the goals, and ultimately the future, of the combination fire service on hold.

Both Theobald and Larmore agreed this week, in testimony before the Mayor and Council and in written reports, that planning proceeded smoothly for most of 2007, with many goals agreed on and put to task. 

“A priority I shared with both organizations was to take two good but separate departments and make one good organization,” said Larmore.

Both parties agreed that a single set of standard operating guidelines, formalized training for all members and a future equal rank structure, were key goals in moving forward.

“We need to and will work toward one, joint set of standards. You can’t have two standards just because one is volunteer and the other is career,” said Larmore, noting that prior to early December, that goal was 90 percent complete.

Although Larmore only alluded to the point where the figurative “wheels came off the wagon,” Theobald spelled it out in a lengthy report to the Mayor and City Council, citing discussions in early December as the point of contention.

“Since that time, all goals have been put on hold, you can’t continue forward with two fire chiefs,” said Larmore.

Despite any disruptions or disagreements, all parties gathered Tuesday and agreed to two main points – a combination fire service needs to be created and a permanent, paid fire chief must be hired.

“Our fire service should and can become the model, combination fire service for the entire country,” said Larmore.

Mayor Rick Meehan suggested a strategic retreat be held in an effort to gather all parties and set clear goals for Ocean City fire and emergency services.

“Your accomplishments this year, Chris [Larmore], have been many. What I really see is a renewed commitment to the volunteer fire company,” said Meehan.

Unanimous agreement regarding the retreat was heard throughout the three-hour meeting, and the council voted unanimously to support the motion to hold a strategic planning retreat, leading many to believe that the negations would proceed smoothly.

“I think its time for us to step up and make something happen now,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas.

Pillas pointed out that a permanent fire chief could take up to a year to secure, suggesting an interim chief be appointed in the meantime to secure unity. Pillas made the motion to appoint Larmore as the interim fire chief.

Issues over whom Larmore would report to and whether the Mayor and Council could fire him arose, raising the question as to whether Larmore would follow the direction of the volunteers or of the Mayor and Council.

“The Mayor and Council could only dismiss you if you were in fact an employee of the Mayor and Council,” said City Solicitor Guy Ayres.

Pillas explained to the council that she had met with all affected parties over the last month, the OCVFC, the career fire fighters and management, and was met with similar response from all three. According to Pillas, all agreed that a combination force was needed, a fire chief was needed now, and that no one had any problem working under or with Larmore.

“It seems to me, if everyone echoes the same things, we should move forward under one fire chief,” Pillas said.

Larmore said one chief is a must.

“You can’t have two fire chiefs, it doesn’t work that way. The ambiguity lies in the fire house, in training … you cant have an administrative side and operational side differ,” said Larmore, explaining that although fires are being put out and lives saved, the administrative level is suffering and ultimately affecting the operational levels.

“This is a very serious issue, you can’t expect a person to put their life at stake if the people they’re working for have two directions,” said Larmore. “You’re asking me to be a leader – you be a leader also, appoint a fire chief today.”

Several council members remained cautious over how a volunteer elected chief would fit into the chain of government as well as whom he would report to.

“I can tell you unequivocally that the Board of Directors, along with the volunteers, are 100 percent behind the fire chief [Larmore],” said OCVFC President James Jester.

Jester explained that the OCVFC had already given Larmore their approval to move to the position of fire chief for the town. Larmore acknowledged that while the volunteers elected him, he would be willing and ready to ultimately answer to the city manager and the Mayor and Council.

“I cannot make a decision with just 50 percent of us meeting,” said Councilwoman Mary Knight.

Knight noted that not all parties were being heard and that further research would need to take place before she could make a decision.

“I think the sooner we can get one chief the better off everyone’s going to be,” said Councilman Jay Hancock.

Councilman Lloyd Martin agreed with Knight, saying, “I feel like its been shoved down my throat today.”

“I know you want to study it but I’m afraid it causes more strife in the community. I truly believe this decision will bring us back together,” said Council member Jim Hall.

Pillas agreed, noting that ample time had been given to research and take a stand on the issue.

“We have a fire chief who is free and capable. The only thing I hear is, ‘we haven’t had time to mull it over,’ … well, we’ve had a year,” said Pillas.

Larmore stressed the importance of moving forward on Tuesday, alluding to the fact that the OCVFC would not continue forward with two people in charge.

“If you want to put the safety of our citizens on hold because you want to do more homework, that’s a luxury you have … I don’t. I’m sorry you weren’t educated in the last 60 days, that’s your responsibility to your citizens,” said Larmore.

Theobald was called to the table to give his opinion on the matter before a vote was called, and ultimately concluded that while one chief is needed, now is not the time.

“It may not be in the best interest at this time to merge those administrations,” said Theobald.

IAFF Local 4269 President Mike Maykrantz, a city-paid career firefighter and paramedic, was also called to the table.

“The only fair way to move forward would be to restore the MOU,” said Maykrantz. “I think there’s further investigation to be completed before making the decision today.”

Maykrantz went on to say that while the union has no problem working with Larmore, the union does not desire to work for a volunteer fire chief in the long term.

“The MOU, we cannot sign. It provided joint authority and we cannot have that,” said Larmore.

After over three hours of discussion and little headway, the stalemate was reflected in a vote by the City Council, with three in favor, three opposed and one abstention. Four votes were needed for the motion to pass and for Larmore to be appointed fire chief. Council members Knight, Joe Mitrecic and Nancy Howard were in opposition, with Council members Hall, Pillas and Hancock in support, and Council member Martin abstaining, leaving the current situation and joint authority in tact.