The Washington County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday to immediately and indefinitely suspend the operations of Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.
A task force will work on a plan to re-establish the department, coming up with a plan, within three months, for letting the fire company continue. Commissioner William B. McKinley said the suspension is indefinite and reinstatement is not guaranteed.
The company has been failing in recent years to respond quickly to calls, especially during the day on weekdays.
A chart shows that the fire department had a “failed response” — it either didn’t respond within 10 minutes or didn’t respond at all — for 26.3 percent of its calls from Jan. 1 through May 31 this year. The “failed response” rate was 22.6 percent last year and 12 percent in 2010.
Kevin L. Lewis, Washington County’s director of emergency services, recommended the suspension to the commissioners, calling for a review after six months of whether the company can resume its operations.
But McKinley said the task force could do its work in half that time.
McKinley and Commissioners John F. Barr, Ruth Anne Callaham and Jeffrey A. Cline voted in favor of the suspension, which includes the loss of county funding.
Terry L. Baker, the president of the commissioners, voted against the recommendation, which he called “quite drastic.”
Before the vote, Baker offered an alternate idea: putting the fire company on probation for 30 to 45 days.
If, after that period, the company didn’t improve its response times, Baker said, he’d support the suspension.
“I think they deserve a last chance,” he said.
Baker also said Fairplay should get the opportunity to speak on its own behalf through due process.
Bill Pennington, president of Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co., attended Tuesday’s meeting. But only Lewis and Dale Hill, the president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, were allowed to make a presentation to the commissioners before the vote.
Other commissioners took a harder line.
Cline said the goal needs to be creating a better fire department, “not specific loyalties.”
Barr said the punishment might hurt, but it needs to happen.
During an interview after the vote, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said the county provides $48,000 a year to Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. and pays for its utilities. That money will be divided among other fire companies that fill in on coverage in the Fairplay area, he said.
The commissioners cannot prevent Fairplay from continuing to get a share of tip-jar proceeds through the county’s Gaming Commission, Murray said. By law, half of the proceeds from tip jars goes to the Fire and Rescue Association to distribute to volunteer fire and rescue associations.
Hill told the commissioners he did not support the suspension. He agreed that there is “a very serious problem,” but he said shutting down the fire company for any period could be worse for the community.
Fire departments in Williamsport, Funkstown, Sharpsburg and Boonsboro are expected to pick up Fairplay’s calls, Hill said. They already have when Fairplay has responded late to calls or not at all.