Baltimore County residents should be wary of phone calls asking for donations and pledges of support for the Volunteer Firefighters Association, said Michael Sparks, public information officer for the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen’s Association.
Some volunteer stations in Baltimore County have complained to the BCVFA about phone calls, usually automated, from an organization called the Volunteer Firefighters Association.
Local volunteer stations — like the one in Arbutus, for example — make their fund drives well known, and typically go door-to-door. The Volunteer Firefighters Association makes use of automated calls, sometimes called robocalls.
But these robocalls don’t send money to any local volunteer fire departments, according to the organization’s website. They go to Heroes United, a political action committee based in Washington, D.C.
Volunteer fire departments in Baltimore County rely heavily on donations to operate each year.
Baltimore County provides some, but not all, financial support to volunteer stations. Of the county’s 53 fire stations, 28 are volunteer and 25 are career, meaning they’re fully funded by tax dollars.
Sparks said donations to volunteer stations not only help support operating costs, but help stations put down payments on buying new equipment and vehicles.
“When it’s the local VFD, it’s the equipment, it’s the facilities. When it’s this other group, it’s about electing politicians,” Sparks said.
Sparks said calls from the D.C.-based Volunteer Firefighters Association have been a problem before, with local stations struggling to get donations because of confusion.
“It’s a hot mess, because [people will] donate to [the Volunteer Firefighters Association] over the phone, they’ll think they already donated to the local stations,” Sparks said. “This group doesn’t help any of the local community fire departments.”
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The organization “exists to support our nation's heroes by pooling the resources of like-minded individuals to support candidates running for political office,” according to its website. The organization could not be reached for comment.
According to the FEC, the group spent most of its money —to the tune of over $2.3 million – between 2017 and 2018 on “donor outreach” with a firm called Market Process Group.
Other expenses from the group in the same time period include “media consulting,” rent, travel and legal fees. The group spent about $57,000 in the 2018 election cycle, helping to elect four Democrats and one Republican, according to nonprofit group OpenSecrets.org.
Norman Simpkins Jr., captain at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, said it was frustrating that a national organization solicits donations by appearing to be connected to actual local fire departments.
“It’s a hack they know will get money,” Simpkins said.
Simpkins said the Arbutus department is “huge” on fundraising, and uses that money to support its operations. The Arbutus department goes door-to-door for solicitations and sends out mailing, but never asks for donations over the phone.
Sparks said too, that he was unaware of any volunteer companies in Baltimore County that use phone calls to solicit donations.