Members of the Middle River Volunteer Fire Company aren't relying only on boot drives, poker tournaments and hall rentals for extra revenue.
The 46-member department in eastern Baltimore County recently sold ad space on its ladder truck and a fire engine, becoming what officials believe is the first in the county to do so. Baltimore-based Carroll Home Services will pay the department a monthly fee for the ad, and members say they'll use the money to purchase a power generator.
"We're always looking for extra income," said Lt. Bill Connelly, a 5-year member of the department.
Turning firetrucks into mobile billboards has raised concerns elsewhere. Last year, Baltimore City Councilman William "Pete" Welch drew national attention and sparked local debate when he proposed allowing the city Fire Department to sell ad space on its trucks.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake opposed the idea, saying firetrucks were not an appropriate spot for advertisements. While the City Council adopted a resolution expressing support for Welch's proposal, no ads have been placed on city firetrucks.
In Middle River, fire company members said no one has raised objections to the deal. The company's executive board approved it unanimously this fall, Connelly said.
"We're all volunteers, and any helping hand we can get, that's what we're going to do," said firefighter-driver Jim Akehurst.
"The criticism is that it's not traditional," Connelly said. "But this is a new age."
The deal allows the heating, cooling and plumbing company to put its name and a message on two vehicles. Both ads say "Carroll Home Services Supports Our Community" in red and white — on the ladder of one vehicle and across the top sides of another.
"It's not tacky," Connelly said.
The National Volunteer Fire Council does not track how many departments have sold ad space on their vehicles, but the fundraising tactic is not common, spokeswoman Kimberly Quiros said.
Raising money is "one of the biggest challenges of volunteer fire departments," she said. "It's not surprising that departments are getting creative."
Volunteer companies in Baltimore County receive income from the county, state and private donations. This year, the county allocated about $6.8 million to the organizations, a figure that includes state funds administered through the county. That amount has held steady over the past few years.
In addition to that money, the county also reimburses the volunteer companies for expenses such as fuel, utilities and maintenance costs, according to county officials.
Connelly said he wouldn't disclose how much the deal will bring in because he doesn't want to hurt negotiations other volunteer companies might have with businesses in the future.
The department has a budget of about $160,000 per year, treasurer Jim Sollenberger said. Of that, it usually gets up to about $74,000 annually from the county and state, with the rest coming from private contributions. Last year, the department received about $94,000 from the county and state, but that was not a typical amount and it isn't expected to continue, Sollenberger said.
Fire companies' finances depend on where they're located, as well as the economy, said Craig Coleman, administrator of the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen's Association, a group representing 35 departments.
Although volunteer fire companies in the county have placed logos on apparatuses after receiving corporate donations, this appears to be the first time one has struck a deal to be paid regularly by a private company in exchange for ad space on a vehicle, Coleman said.
"I don't know of anybody else that has that," he said.
Nationally, groups such as Public Citizen, a consumer-rights nonprofit that runs a project called Commercial Watch, have opposed the commercialization of public spaces and property.
"We need to protect civic values and civic space without further encroachment from the commercial world," Public Citizen president Robert Weissman said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.
The Middle River department first started thinking about selling ad space about 15 years ago, when it ordered the fire engine that now sports Carroll's name, Sollenberger said.
"Our goal was to get a whole bunch of them up there," Sollenberger said.
The company has a history with Carroll Home Services; many department members have worked there at some point, Connelly said. His twin brother, Brian, is an HVAC technician for Carroll.
Carroll Home Services president Eric Schmider said the business regularly contributes to charitable causes such as the Special Olympics, the American Heart Association, Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue and local churches. The fire apparatus ads were "a great opportunity" for the company, he said.
"I know the money's going to go to a great use," Schmider said.
County Fire Chief John Hohman said he has no position on the fire company's decision. Volunteer departments have a great deal of autonomy, he said.
"I understand the need for volunteer companies to raise money," said Hohman, who started out as a junior volunteer firefighter in Woodlawn at age 12. "I don't want to make decisions for them. In Middle River's case and in many others, they are tremendously successful, independent nonprofit corporations. One of the things that sets [Baltimore County] apart is they get to make decisions like that."
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