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Bel Air Fire Company chief suspends three, demotes fourth member over Facebook posts

The chief of Harford County's largest and busiest fire company says he has suspended three members and demoted a fourth over inappropriate posts that were made on a member's Facebook page after he complained about not receiving a discount at the Bel Air Sonic drive-in restaurant and some responses suggested they not respond to any fire calls at the business.

One of the three who was suspended was also demoted in rank, BAVFC Chief Eddie Hopkins said Tuesday morning.

Hopkins said further disciplinary action is pending against some of the four, whom he said he has recommended be terminated from the fire company for their actions. That decision ultimately rests with the fire company's board of directors, he said. In addition, the actions he took against the four members Monday can be appealed to the board.

Hopkins said he identified eight members of the company who were involved in the posts. The Bel Air company has about 200 members making it the largest of a dozen volunteer companies that provide firefighting and ambulance transport services in Harford. About 100 members are active firefighters, he said, with the rest being senior and auxiliary members who are involved with the company in various other capacities.

The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company handled 6,500 EMS/ambulance calls and 2,200 fire calls in 2011, Hopkins said.

Four of the members who made what Hopkins says were "less egregious" posts are also facing disciplinary action, Hopkins said.

"It embarrasses me and upsets me terribly that something like this happens," he said. "There are more than 1,500 firefighters and EMS personnel serving Harford County, and the overwhelming majority don't engage in such asinine behavior or make comments like these."

No discount – no 'response'

The initial Facebook posting on May 30 was: "Even when myself and a full engine crew are in turnout gear at Sonic for lunch, the manager still says only police and military get discounts. Cool, thanks we appreciate the support."

The responses included comments such as "let's make sure they don't get a response," "go set the Dumpster on fire" and "wait till its on fire, then see what he says."

Some posts, however, questioned why firefighters should receive a discount at all, such as: "Why such a sense of entitlement?"

To which the person whose page it is responded: "It's not a sense of entitlement at all, I just find it alarming that if your going to give a discount for public service, why not to all those who assist others. Just found it alarming that's all."

Hopkins was alerted the posts by an e-mail sent to him early Monday morning, copies of which were sent to local media. The sender signed the e-mail "Robert C." and included an attachment of a computer screen shot of the Facebook page posts.

"I have lived in Bel Air for over 11 years and find these actions disgusting," the e-mailer wrote. "People need to take pride in their town and stop acting like everyone owes them the world."

Hopkins immediately began to investigate early Monday morning, saying: "If this is in fact our members, I do not tolerate this kind of behavior at all."

Hopkins, who is also the mayor of Bel Air in his capacity as chairman of the Board of Town Commissioners, said he does not use Facebook, but he did see the screen shot attachment and verified its legitimacy. He said he also was in contact with the person who wrote the complaining e-mail before he started to contact the members who allegedly made the posts.

"In my mind, that is pretty egregious and that is a very poor attitude, if they are firefighters," Hopkins said, when first contacted about it Monday, vowing that an investigation would begin promptly and that nothing would be swept under the rug.

Cautioned about actions

By late Monday afternoon, Hopkins said he had identified the company members who made posts, including the member whose Facebook page started the exchange. He said his assistant chief, Ricky Davis, aided him with interviews and the investigation.

Hopkins said firefighters are cautioned that they represent the fire company when they are out in public and should act accordingly.

Hopkins said the allegation came just days after firefighters from his company and around the county "performed flawlessly in a disaster," a reference to the tornado that hit the Fallston area Friday evening.

Hopkins said he did not know if firefighters from other companies also posted, but the other names would be circulated to those companies. All fire companies in Harford are private, volunteer organizations.

Hopkins said he recognized some of the non-BAVFC names on the posts as possibly belonging to other fire companies.

The behavior is not unprecedented, as firefighters have posted inappropriate photos or made comments on social media in the past, for which they have been reprimanded, he said.

He also said Bel Air has a social media policy for members, which he said "respects the right to free speech" but does not permit "comments such as I read; we don't tolerate that."

He also said firefighters routinely post photos on Facebook from the scene of fires, "We have had people working on a fire and saying, 'Isn't this a cool pic [picture]?'"

"I understand about the photos and comments like that," he said. "I don't tolerate what happened here. It's hurtful to me personally and hurts the credibility of the fire and EMS service."

Sonic manager Rick Joshi has not been available for comment.

Aegis Managing Editor Allan Vought contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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