Fire Chief Talks $1 Salary, Major Changes, Personnel Moves

OCEAN CITY – Chris Larmore has had quite a year as the chief of the newly merged Ocean City Fire Department, and he’s got much more to show for it than just the $1 he made in salary.

Larmore, the appointed figurehead of the merged volunteer and career fire department, has gone through a year of scrutiny, controversy and seemingly, has had his every move under constant watch by some since taking the reins and trying to move the fire department out of the turmoil and into the future.

In an interview with The Dispatch on Wednesday, Larmore says despite all that has happened in the past year, the task is very simple.

“The fire service has always been based on trust and honesty and if you tell the truth and aren’t shy about reaching out for help, a lot of the good people come to the front and that’s what I’ve been seeing a lot of in the last six to eight months,” said Larmore. “Ask good people to do a job, and what you get in return is really good work.  That’s the basis of it all.”

Larmore could be deemed one of the biggest bargains in Ocean City history as he opted to be paid $1 for his service as chief of the fire department, even though his position would easily pay over $100,000 and has worked tirelessly since that appointment (60-80 hour weeks on average) to make the “ship” run in a more efficient manner.

“Right now, you could not put a dollar amount on the satisfaction I get from seeing this work,” said Larmore. “Does it cost me a lot of money? Of course, but it wouldn’t be more efficient to the city at this time, and I’ve always been taught to work as many hours as it takes to get the job done.”

For the record, Larmore gets paid one check on the first pay period of the fiscal year (July 11 last year), of which 15 cents is taken out for taxes, but he does receive medical benefits as a town employee, even though he pays his 10-percent pay-in share out of his own pocket rather than have it deducted from his earnings.

The question of “how can he afford to work a full-time job for $1” is something that has perplexed many since he took the job, but it’s what he’s done thus far that has more people standing up and taking notice.

Larmore said that after working for developer and mentor Jack Burbage, he saved enough money to live on though he claims he is in no way, “independently wealthy” and that coupled with the one house he builds a year, sustains his earnings and enables him to do his task for his aforementioned and almost charitable salary.

With all that said, Larmore has concentrated on creating a new cohesion in the merged volunteer and career divisions, but the recent economic situation has been equally as challenging.

“What went from my highest priority, being how to best merge the two departments to one, became how do you provide the same service with a reduced budget,” said Larmore. “A lot of our decisions right now unfortunately, have to do with operating to the greatest efficiency under strict budget constraints.”

Over the course of four months last year, the big story was the fire department controversy that loomed at City Hall, as the council tried to figure out the future for Ocean City’s 100-year-old public safety group, and everyone involved continues to call the situation one of the toughest they’ve ever dealt with, and Larmore is no exception to that.

“It was a very painful process for everyone,” said Larmore. “I’ve had people joke to me about the amount of hair that I lost and what remained turned gray, so in hindsight, it was a very long four or five months not only to me, but for everybody.”

The chief said that once the Mayor and City Council made the final decision and firmed up the new direction, it enabled everyone to focus on the job at hand rather than all the turmoil that was created during the controversy.

“It seems like it was 10 years ago, but it was a very traumatic time for everyone on the volunteer and the career side because people are very apprehensive of the unknown,” said Larmore.

One memorable exchange during the controversy was the volunteer contingent of the fire department, of which Larmore was the chief, essentially threatening to leave town and go to West Ocean City.  Larmore said that there was a huge misconception that the tactic or the claim was in any way a power move.

“It was not a ploy or a threat to leave town for the volunteers, it was really that they were offered no other alternative in terms of involvement and they didn’t feel as though they were appreciated. I’d like to think that it was a misunderstanding, and that’s all behind us now,” he said.

Since the merger, Larmore has come before the Mayor and Council on a monthly basis asking for new things, such as improvements to Station 4, new equipment for paramedic rescue workers, two new fire engines (which will be delivered in the next few months) and has in all cases, preached improved efficiency in the new department; the biggest example of that being the new internal promotional ranking structure for the career division.

“The beauty of these promotions is that I will now have five more people at the table helping me to manage the department and because they are now management they don’t qualify for overtime,” he said. “We are going to be getting the best of these people at their regular salary, that’s why we were able to present to the council that we would be actually saving money in our budget.”

In talking to Larmore, you get a sense that rather than try to keep all the power that he has in this situation and perhaps increase it, he is instead trying to make moves to improve efficiency and delegate the tasks to other members in the department, which might mean that he isn’t planning on making $1 a year in this position forever.

“I firmly believe, and it’s more of a gut feeling, that one of the gentlemen that you see appointed with these promotions will eventually be the next fire chief because they are that good,” said Larmore, “but I’m fully prepared to do this job until I believe that we are the best combination fire service in the United States, and then I will step down, unless the council asks me to prior to that.”

So in the 10 months that has followed since the fire department controversy, Larmore has the merged department working under a new symbol, better equipment, more efficient tactics, but the same old work ethic and level of service to the town of Ocean City, but the biggest achievement may be the unity that he has at the very least partially instilled in a department that was bitterly divided less than a year ago.

Yet, he knows that one year or a few forward steps will not make everyone happy or forget all that has transpired.

“Human nature is still going to have a level of pain and remembrance of what we went through, and we just have to keep pushing to look at the positive, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.