Carroll County’s fire, rescue and emergency medical services might be joining forces over the course of the next three years to become an official county agency, with its own advisory council, to improve its services for employees, volunteers and the community.
The Board of County Commissioners and Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association formulated a work group after a joint meeting in February 2017 to look at the future organization of fire, rescue and EMS in the county, and to address current issues while maintaining and growing the volunteer system.
The work group presented its findings and proposals — which include a proposed draft addition to the County Code, as well as the Emergency Services Advisory Council charter and bylaws — to the BOCC for the first time on Thursday, Feb. 7, and are slated to come back to discuss the ideas more at a later date.
Tom Coe, the work group’s chairperson and a member of New Windsor volunteer fire company, said the move would be a resolution to the county's current lack of a defined career progression ladder, lack of competitive salaries and lack supervision in most stations.
“We have very few paramedics that are injected into our system each year,” Coe said. “Conversely, Carroll County is used as a career stepping stone. They come to the county to work and gain experience, and then leave and go somewhere else.”
He said there were three goals the work group identified to guide its efforts: determine Carroll County government’s authority, role and responsibility in the provision of fire, rescue and EMS in Carroll; establish leadership of a combination fire, rescue, EMS county board; and create an efficient career model for fire, rescue and EMS to support first responders in Carroll.
“Carroll County government is one of the primary funding sources of the 14 fire departments,” Coe said, “but there is no operational authority from Carroll County government.
“County commissioners have no recourse to fix or alleviate any problems,” he said.
Coe explained to the board that the individual companies will maintain their individual identities as companies, but will be split into regions across the county — identified geographically as central, west, north, south — under one Carroll County fire chief. The pay scales and classifications would become uniform across the county, and employees would become county employees.
Representatives from each region would serve on the advisory council, along with stakeholders, system utilizers, volunteer representatives, the career workforce and management.
The fire departments would be split up with Harney, Taneytown and Union Bridge to the west; Pleasant Valley, Westminster, Reese and New Windsor in the center; Lineboro, Manchester, Hampstead in the north; and Mount Airy, Winfield, Gamber and Sykesville to the south.
“The key to the successful creation of a combination service is the ability of the county’s 14 volunteer corporations to maintain their individual corporate identity and autonomy as a community focal point, while at the same time ensuring accountability and consistency within a countywide system,” he said. “Carroll County fire department owns all 14 fire stations, a mobile fleet and $40 million of emergency response equipment.
“Fire stations in Carroll County are truly the community focal point,” Coe said, “and in absence of businesses in small towns, it’s fire stations that allow the community to come together in both emergency and nonemergency settings.”
The work group is now determining a plan to get the new system implemented over the course of fiscal years 2020, 2021 and 2022, with support from CCVESA and 13 of the 14 fire companies in the county.
Westminster’s fire company was the one that voted against the change.
“Our concern lies in the representation phase of these documents,” said Dan Plunkert, of Westminster’s fire company. “We always maintain the importance of having a seat at the table … and we didn’t feel that this current plan provides that opportunity.”
Plunkert said that as internal stakeholders, the departments own their equipment and facilities, and that having one person represent four departments won’t give each department the voice they need.
“We are often criticized for our opinions,” Plunkert said. “We strongly agree change needs to happen. Our department has probably been one of the loudest speaking that we need more personnel and more funding to make that happen. We are not against [that] something has to be done.
“We have concerns and we think it’s important to get this right now,” he said, “and feel it would be harder to come back later and correct it. We have a lot of things in place since the 1920s. There’s a lot of things we’ve already experienced and taken care of. We aren’t perfect — there’s always room for improvement — but we have that stuff in place and we want to make sure our voice is heard.”
But despite Westminster’s concerns, many of the fire companies support the idea of unifying and becoming a bigger, more organized entity.
“To quote what Commissioner [Eric] Bouchat said: Carroll County government is a multimillion dollar business run by part-time people,” said Rick Baker, a member of the Mount Airy fire company. “You can say the same about Carroll County fire departments.
“I'm very concerned about the people working for us right now,” he said. “They have no career progression; there is no upward mobility for them. We see a lot of people leaving our current system today. This program would benefit both career personnel we have and volunteers we currently have serving.”
Baker said the employees and volunteers need to get back to what they do well — which is raising money, putting out fires and responding to emergencies — not hiring, firing, payroll and human resources.
“I will tell you, I’ve been involved for 44 years now in this [fire and emergency response] business in Carroll,” said Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, who is a member of the Pleasant Valley fire company. “I’ve served in pretty much every leadership role there is or has ever been created.
“I am extremely happy that you have reached the point that you have with the amount of the decisions that you have, and the 13-1 vote that you have,” he said. “But I will tell you that I would hope, because this is such a change and such a challenge moving forward, that for me, I would love to see that 14-0, because were all in this together.”
He said he is hoping that as the plan moves forward tweaks can be made so that, as Plunkert said, everyone can get their seat at the table.
“Because we are not going to be able to do this if we’re not,” he said.
The commissioners’ questions ranged from how much the new structure would cost, to how the authority of a county fire chief could be enforced with 14 separate companies.
Wantz said the board needed time to look over the documents before any decision to concur with the proposed addition to the County Code and the Emergency Services Advisory Council’s Charter and Bylaws, with the intent to move them forward toward adoption.
“I think we need to absorb this a little bit,” he said, “because there are going to be more questions and quite frankly I’d like to see the room filled up with more fire and EMS people.”