The Carroll Board of County Commissioners spent an hour and half of their Thursday morning open session discussing the future of key pieces of infrastructure in the county — the fire service.
The specific topics at hand were whether Carroll County Government should empower an administrator of some sort to oversee and coordinate fire services, and the possibility of moving to a combination fire service, which would involve hiring paid, professional firefighters alongside volunteers.
At present, Carroll County's 14 fire companies are independent, private corporations, staffed almost entirely by volunteers.
And as Tom Coe, chief of the New Windsor fire company and chairman of a collaborative Carroll County Government/Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association working group pointed out in a presentation, the county government currently has no authority over the provision of fire services.
The working group would like to change that.
"Based on the fact that we have a county commissioner form of government, any sort of authority is provided through the state legislature," Coe said. "Authority that is not provided in the state code today to Carroll County basically means the commissioners don't have that authority."
Coe presented the commissioners with text of "enabling" legislation CCVESA would like the commissioners to agree to ask the Carroll County delegation to take to Annapolis in the 2018 legislative session. The language was approved by 12 of the 14 CCVESA member fire companies at their September monthly meeting.
"We view that vote as the most significant vote ever taken by the CCVESA," Coe said.
The full text of the proposed enabling legislation reads:
"The Board of Carroll County Commissioners shall provide an entity whose purpose shall be the administration of the County's affairs relating to fire, rescue and emergency medical services and associated activities while maintaining the volunteer emergency services. The commissioners shall adopt and implement ordinances and such measures necessary to adequately and appropriately manage, direct and regulate these activities."
Coe believes that this would be a necessary first step before discussing the details of changes to the fire service, such as a combination service.
"We want the details to be housed in a county code or ordinance," he said in an interview after the meeting.
And while a combination service would in no way replace the volunteer system in place today, it would address an important need, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said in an interview after the meeting. Wantz is a past officer with CCVESA and a member of the Pleasant Valley fire company.
"The major challenge for the fire companies right now is one word and that's manpower," he said. "There's just not enough folks to pull from, especially daytime hours and it's even getting challenging in the evening, too."
Wantz said that while the fire and emergency medical service is able to respond to all emergencies today, taking proactive steps now to ensure it can continue to do so in the future is important.
That being said, Wantz did take issue with the language stating in the proposed legislation that the county commissioners "shall" develop ordinances.
"The word enabling means you give the authority or means to do something," Wantz said in the meeting. "The way in which you have this worded means, you are required to do something."
There was also concern among the members of the two fire companies that voted against the draft legislation at the CCVESA meeting, Westminster and Manchester fire companies.
"Westminster fire department is opposed to this because we don't feel there are enough checks and balances in your proposed legislation," Bob Cumberland, president of the Westminster fire company, told Coe and the commissioners at the meeting. He was concerned that that there could be infighting among the fire companies or between the companies and the newly empowered county government.
"The next group of county commissioners could come in here and have a whole different outlook," Cumberland said. "We want to make sure the legislation, no matter who is sitting in front of us, has a guideline."
Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, wondered if granting Carroll County Government such authority was really necessary, if, hypothetically, a combination fire service could not be achieved through a consent degree between the fire companies and the commissioners.
"Suppose there was a third component, and this is just hypothetical," Rothschild asked Coe. "After evaluating the spending levels, the board of commissioners were to make a decision to significantly increase across the board, funding."
One problem with that, Coe said in an interview, is without a central authority coordinating the fire companies, it will not be possible to fully leverage the resources presently available. For instance, fire companies do not currently share personnel, if one station were short a firefighter and another station was fully staffed.
"That's because of lots of things, obviously there are 14 different employers, different pay scales, different benefit structures. And most notably those 14 different employers have their own worker's compensation policies," Coe said. "On the surface some of these things are easy to fix, as Commissioner Rothschild proffered, but when you dig into the details it ends up being prohibitive."
The commissioners did not decide Thursday whether to support the proposed legislation as currently worded, preferring to wait for Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who was not present, to return for deliberations.
It is, however, a topic that the commissioners intend to keep after until a decision is reached, recognizing that it has been discussed among members of the fire service for some time already.
"I want to move ahead with this, I don't want it to die and just be another possible thing," said Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2. "I am going to keep pushing to make sure this doesn't go another 40 years."