Fire service main topic at legislative delegation hearing

The Carroll County Legislative Delegation met for more than two hours Tuesday night in Westminster for its annual public hearing on proposed county legislation.

The discussion covered Carroll County-specific bill requests for the 2017 Maryland General Assembly legislative session, ranging from a bond bill for the Boys & Girls Club of Westminster, to the regulation of pinball machines and Sunday gaming, to the salaries of members of the Carroll County Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners. All of these are issues the delegation may take to Annapolis for the 2018 Maryland General Assembly legislative session.


But the issue that drew the most comments and questions from the delegation and took the most time during the meeting was the proposed enabling legislation concerning a combined fire service in Carroll County.

Approved by a majority — 12 to 2 — of Carroll’s 14 volunteer fire companies and by the Carroll Board of County Commissioners, 4 to 1, the enabling legislation would provide the county government the option of exercising authority over the fire service for the first time. This could help provide staffing and resource efficiencies between fire companies and pave the way for a combination fire service, one that mixes paid career firefighters with volunteers, proponents explained, to help support a service that is running low on new volunteers.

“When I joined Union Bridge, when that truck went out the door, there were 10 people on the truck, and 10 more waiting for the next truck,” said Perry Jones, a 45-year veteran of the fire service, member of the Union Bridge fire company and second vice president of the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association, or CCVESA. “Now there are three to four people on the truck.”

“Folks just aren’t volunteering like they used to,” added Tom Coe, chief of the New Windsor fire company and chairman of the CCVESA working group that developed the language of the enabling legislation. “Sometimes it’s a roll of the dice to make sure we can have an adequate response to protect the citizens.”

The text of the enabling legislation reads: “The Board of Carroll County Commissioners may provide an entity or structure 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 may adopt and implement ordinances and such measures necessary to adequately and appropriately manage, direct and regulate these activities.”

But because of Carroll’s commissioner form of government, the delegation would have to take the legislation to the General Assembly in order to delegate the authority to administer fire service issue to Carroll’s Board of County Commissioners.

After passage, Coe explained, an advisory council consisting of representatives from each of Carroll County’s 14 fire companies would work with the commissioners to determine what is needed to ensure the county’s fire service will continue to function well in the future. That could include a central authority that could coordinate emergency responses to countywide disasters, something like the sheriff does for police services, Coe told the delegation. And it could mean the mixing of paid and volunteer firefighters in a combination service, “truly the most efficient nationwide model for the prevision of emergency services,” he said.

Members of the delegation had questions for proponents of the measure, including why a more specific plan was not included in the text of the enabling legislation, a question posed to Coe by state Sen. Justin Ready. Coe said the intention was to leave the enabling legislation broad and nonspecific.

“If there is a problem, we want to deal with it locally,” he said. “Our concern would be if we make this too specific, it will cause us to maybe have to go to Annapolis again in the future.”

But Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, wondered why it was necessary to grant the county any authority until a more specific plan, with estimated costs, had been developed by the county and fire companies.

“I wouldn’t think the fire departments would want to give up their autonomy without knowing what they are giving it up for,” she said. “Why would you not put together a template of what you all agree to before you all give up your autonomy?”

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, who was the one dissenting vote when the board voted to pass the enabling legislation to the delegation, also expressed some skepticism. He felt the lack of specificity in the enabling legislation could lead to too much government control and noted that Carroll’s volunteer fire companies are private, nonprofit entities.

“I don’t think we should ever be able to force an independent 501c(3) to come under government control,” Rothschild said. “I just think it’s wrong.”

Coe said combined fire systems were less about fire companies giving up autonomy than that they just “play ball better together.”


But, historically, Coe said, the fire companies have attempted several times to develop plans to share resources with the help of the county, only to see the plans fall apart because the county lacked the necessary authority. The enabling legislation, he said, would only mark the beginning of a process to find the best solution to the fire system’s needs on a proactive basis.

“There is a lot more work to do,” Coe said. “Trust me, we know that.”