Volunteer firefighters say County Executive Robert Neall's proposal to add 27 paid positions to the department and build a new station is a waste of taxpayers' money and a move to further dilute the volunteers' status.
"Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on additional career officers and firefighters when equally trained volunteer firefighters have offered a plan better utilizing volunteers?" asked Louis D'Camera, president of the Volunteer Firefighters Association. "Why spend millions of dollars on a new fire station and all of the associated equipment when a station only 2.6 miles away is already successfully covering the same territory?"
In the budget Mr. Neall presented to the County Council on April 30, he included the new positions and a station to be built in Odenton, near the Odenton station on Annapolis Road. The total cost would be about $4.5 million.
"By continuing to use volunteer firefighters, these funds could be reallocated for much better use somewhere else in the county," he said.
The increase in paid positions and the station are just two issues in a long list of disputes between the volunteers and Fire Administrator Paul Haigley. The volunteers claim Mr. Haigley and Mr. Neall want an all-paid fire department.
"That is just simply not true," said Capt. Gary Sheckells, spokesman for the department.
He said this year's department budget is 1 percent lower than last year's while still allowing for more firefighters.
"It's a win-win situation," he said. "We will gain 27 positions that will enhance the protection of the citizens of the county and at the same time save the taxpayers money."
He said the new positions will help eliminate overtime costs. The fire department received more than $2 million for overtime in last year's budget; this year's request is for $1.9 million.
Captain Sheckells defended the new station, saying it has been recommended in four studies done on fire service in West County since 1967. Stations such as Waugh Chapel, Harmans-Dorsey and South Glen Burnie also were recommended in those studies and have been built.
But volunteers still view the proposed station at Ridgeway as a threat and an attempt to dismantle the 500-member volunteer force.
"By using the volunteers who are already in place and who are expertly trained, they would be using a great natural resource," said volunteer spokesman Bob Stern.
This dispute is the latest in a series of incidents that volunteers say have left them demoralized.
In March, Mr. Haigley demoted the volunteer commanders from chiefs to captains and ordered them to wear the appropriate insignia and red color-coded gear. The change pushed the volunteer chiefs below paid captains in the chain of command at an emergency scene.