Suspended, demoted Bel Air firefighters lose appeals
A fifth faces termination pending appeal to board of directors
Three Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company members have been suspended and a fourth demoted after making what their chief says were inappropriate comments in Facebook posts about the Bel Air Sonic drive-in. (PHOTO BY BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / April 15, 2012)
An appeal for a fifth firefighter, who is facing termination from the volunteer organization, is still pending before the board of directors, according to Hopkins.
"Everyone who got suspended, obviously, they appealed and their punishments were upheld," Hopkins said.
The firefighters who were suspended, demoted or both were disciplined by Deputy Chief Rick Davis. All four appealed those actions to Hopkins, who upheld the punishments.
The firefighters had made posts on a member's Facebook page in early June suggesting they not respond to any fire calls at the Sonic Drive-in, on Route 924, after the member complained about not receiving a discount. One post suggested setting a fire in the Sonic's Dumpster.
Hopkins said three members were suspended for 30 days.
Of that group, he said, one member will be placed on six months probation once he returns from his suspension. The other two will be reduced in rank upon their return – pending a review by Hopkins – and will also be placed on six months probation.
A fourth member, who wasn't suspended, was demoted from a suppression officer to a firefighter, Hopkins said.
None of the five members, including the one facing termination, has been identified publicly by Hopkins, who has cited personnel confidentiality.
Hopkins said the challenge he faces as head of Harford County's largest and busiest fire company is he does not have the luxury of terminating people for "every infraction."
"I don't want to cut my nose off to spite my face," Hopkins said, adding he was very disappointed by the firefighters involved in the Facebook posts.
"What's disappointing is these are some of my top responders, my seasoned people, which makes this much more difficult to deal with," he said. "They're guys who may not be in the top 10 or 20 [responders], but they are consistent guys who I can rely on."
"I just wouldn't have expected the manner of comment coming from them," he added. "I really hope other members can learn from this."
The Facebook posts and the fallout from them created a stir in Harford's volunteer fire service. The county has a dozen private volunteer fire and ambulance companies that provide all the fire protection in the county and the bulk of the emergency ambulance service.
The incident prompted questions about social media and discount and/or gratuities policies at law enforcement and public service agencies like fire companies.
The controversy also arose at a time when Harford County Executive David Craig is trying to exert more control and accountability over the private organizations, which collectively receive $10 million in annual financial support from the local government.
Hopkins has said the Bel Air company had a social media policy in place before the Facebook incident that advised members to use discretion but, in light of what happened, that policy is being re-examined. Policies differ from fire company to fire company in the county, a spokesperson for their umbrella association said previously.