County officials are offering local volunteer fire companies $1.6 million to help pay for repairs, maintenance and equipment, provided the volunteers relinquish some of their authority to the county fire administrator and Fire Advisory Board.
The agreement, contained in contracts signed by 22 of the county's 23 volunteer fire companies, could end decades of bitter squabbling between paid and volunteer firefighters, Stephen Halford, county fire administrator, told the County Council yesterday.
The council is considering an administration bill ratifying the contracts.
"I'm really excited about this. I think we did something good here," he said before the meeting.
Milton J. Mekins Sr., chief of the Lake Shore Volunteer Fire Company, agreed.
"They're not trying to take you over," said Chief Mekins, whose company signed an agreement last month.
"There are parts in there where if their engine breaks down, we just let them use our engine. To me, that's not a big deal."
Chief Mekins said the county has earmarked about $30,000 for his company -- one-third of its annual operation budget.
Under the contracts, the county has the authority to inspect volunteers and their stations, to enforce county health and safety standards in the firehouses, and to delegate back-up or emergency personnel according to the situation.
In return, the county has appropriated money for the volunteers.
Chief Halford said the last volunteer company is close to signing the contract, but he would not identify the company.
The bill before the council must be approved to make them official, he said.
"The intent of the legislation is to tell volunteer fire companies that if you don't enter these agreements, taxpayers' money can be withheld from you," the fire administrator said.
"If we do this, we are well on our way to a more unified fire service."
The chiefs acknowledged the acrimonious relationships between paid firefighters and the fiercely independent volunteers, but Chief Mekins said those fights should be behind them.
"If you're going to put out a house that's on fire, it doesn't matter what engine does it," he said. "Let's face it. This is 1995. We need to work together."
The agreements come more than two years after then-County Executive Robert R. Neall commissioned a task force to suggest ways the county fire system could better serve the county.
County Executive John G. Gary fashioned the group's recommendations into the reciprocity agreements.