No need for alarm, kids: The fire trucks will roll


Children who'd taken to picketing the Bel Air Volunteer Fire station demanding that fire trucks appear in the Fourth of July parade in Bel Air got their wish Thursday night.

Volunteer fire officials and the parade committee reached a compromise over a simmering feud that had resulted in all fire departments pulling out of the event.

About 30 pieces of firefighting equipment, including trucks and ambulances, will appear in the parade.

The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department will have the lion's share of that -- about 13 Bel Air fire department vehicles will appear in the annual parade, which draws about 50,000 spectators.

The compromise was hammered out during a meeting Thursday night at Bel Air Town Hall between parade committee members and representatives of the Bel Air fire department.

Bel Air firefighters pulled out of the parade about three weeks ago because administrators did not want to abide by the committee's limit on the number of trucks and vehicles that could appear in the parade. The county's other volunteer fire companies followed suit.

The all-volunteer parade committee, the Bel Air Independence Day Committee Inc., had asked the county's 13 fire departments to limit the number of trucks to three each, though Bel Air would be allowed six because it was the host company.

The meeting between Bel Air volunteer fire department representatives and the parade committee was at times contentious.

"It's all or nothing," said Tony Coliano, vice president of the board of directors for the Bel Air company.

Bel Air Police Chief Leo Matrangola, a parade committee member, said he felt the fire department could live with having six fire trucks in the parade.

Bel Air Fire Chief Steve Cox retorted, "I don't tell you how to run the police department, don't you tell me what resources I need."

Independence Day Committee member Don Stewart pleaded for the compromise.

"We want the fire trucks in the parade. We are desperate to have them. We are not the bad guys," he said.

Other committee members, including John Gessner, a lawyer, found the compromise worrisome.

"I'm not sure this is the compromise that the committee wants. Do we just go along with the fire company whether we believe that they need 13 fire trucks or not?" he said.

Cox argued that his concern for public safety made it essential that all 13 pieces of the station's emergency equipment -- fully staffed with about 70 volunteers -- be in the parade. In the event of an emergency, the firefighters and paramedics could respond easily, he explained.

He told the committee that the only way to guarantee that volunteers are on hand and able to respond to an emergency promptly is to have all of them in the parade.

"My people are volunteers. I have to have a motivator to get them to leave their wives and children on this holiday and to be available for an emergency. These guys can't go to the shore or a barbecue. I need them here," said Cox.

About 20 children, clutching homemade signs and American flags, picketed town hall Thursday night as the committee, which organizes the parade and other activities for the Fourth, and fire officials met.

It was the second time in less than a week that the children, aged 5 to 11, had picketed in an attempt to persuade adults to find a solution ensuring fire trucks appeared in the parade.

Greg Woods, 7, one of the demonstrators, carried a sign that said: "Kids want all the fire trucks."

His father, Rick Woods, said he contacted other parents of protesting children when he saw how upset his son was that the fire stations had pulled out of the parade.

"I was born and raised in Bel Air, and there have always been fire trucks in the parade. I see no reason for the committee members to change that now," he said.

Ed Jackson, committee president, said he was "satisfied" with the agreement as long the total number of fire trucks in the parade was not more than about 30. Jackson said county residents had complained that the parade, one of Harford County's biggest public events, was too long and that there were too many fire trucks.

Bel Air chief Cox said he would work with the county's other volunteer fire departments to keep the figure to 30.

Cox pledged to organize the fire trucks in a way that would be "aesthetically pleasing" to the parade committee.

Last year, there were about 50 fire trucks, ambulances and other fire equipment in the parade.

For many children, the fire engines with their flashing lights andsirens are the highlight of the parade, said Karen Budnik, one of the parents who organized the children's pickets.

"Children don't understand the controversy. I am for both sides. I feel sorry for the firemen -- they want to be together; and I feel sorry for the committee -- they have been worried that the parade is too long."

The children, supervised by Budnik and other parents, picketed the 7 p.m. town hall meeting for about 30 minutes until they learned that Cox and Jackson had been meeting separately at the station house since about 6:30 p.m.

The children and parents then marched in the rain down the street to the station house, only to learn that Cox and Jackson had been unable to reach an agreement.

The children were excited when firefighters invited them into the station and allowed them to explore some of the fire equipment. They also gave the children a ride back to the town hall inside ambulances.

Brendan Hopkins, 11, and his mother, Gail, sat through the meeting as representatives of the picketing children outside. Brendan said he was relieved after the compromise was struck.

"It makes all the time we've spent here worthwhile," he said.

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