By JULIE E. GREENE
9:51 PM EDT, July 30, 2012
In the two days before the Washington County Commissioners were set to decide whether to suspend Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.’s operations, the commissioners have received at least 14 emails from community members supporting a suspension, according to letters provided by the county government.
“It expresses concern in the realm of public safety, that folks that are living in the service area of Fairplay are concerned that there will be a response in the appropriate amount of time to save someone’s life,” County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said Monday.
The commissioners received at least 16 emails Sunday and Monday about the Fairplay issue. Two of the emails were from the same couple, and one email, while not specifically stating support for county Emergency Services Director Kevin Lewis’ plan, implored the commissioners to “act now.”
Lewis is to present to the commissioners at the start of their 10:30 a.m. meeting Tuesday a recommendation to suspend Fairplay fire company’s operations. The meeting will be at the County Administration Building in downtown Hagerstown.
Apart from emails to the commissioners, The Herald-Mail received at least two phone calls, 14 emails, and a typed letter about the Fairplay fire company situation since Sunday night, when a story about the Fairplay situation was posted online at www.herald-mail.com. Many of those communications also expressed concern about Fairplay fire company’s ability to respond to emergency calls.
Several people who communicated with the commissioners and The Herald-Mail cited specific incidents in which the fire company failed to respond or failed to respond quickly to emergencies in its primary coverage area.
Fairplay’s failure to respond within at least 10 minutes to 26.3 percent or 44 of 167 of its service requests from Jan. 1 to May 31, was cited in a recommendation to suspend the fire company’s operations immediately, according to a presentation document for Tuesday’s meeting.
The recommendation includes the suspension, withholding county and state funding from the fire company, and establishing a task force to help the fire company re-establish service and reorganize the company, if necessary, according to the presentation document and Lewis. The recommendation calls for reviewing the plan in six months to determine if the fire company can resume operations.
The concerns are mostly about Fairplay’s ability to respond to daytime weekday calls when many of the fire company’s members are at work, Fairplay Fire Chief Leonard Heller said Sunday. In response to the proposed suspension, which was posted online Friday with the commissioners’ meeting agenda, Fairplay started paying an emergency medical technician/driver to work out of the Fairplay fire hall from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, starting Monday, Heller said.
On Monday morning, an emergency services technician/firefighter from Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department was at the Fairplay fire station.
The fact that the fire company began paying someone to be at the fire hall starting Monday “is a joke,” said Scott Bragunier, one of the people who emailed the commissioners in support of Lewis’ plan.
Fairplay fire officials could have done that years ago, said Bragunier, who has been a volunteer firefighter in Williamsport since 1993. Bragunier said he was sharing his personal opinion and was not speaking for the Williamsport fire company.
“One person doesn’t fix the problem,” Bragunier said.
Asked what good one person would do, Lewis said it depends on the type of emergency incident.
One person could respond and initiate CPR, Lewis said.
But as far as one person responding to an accident with multiple injuries or a structure fire, Fairplay would continue to be dependent upon surrounding fire and emergency medical service (EMS) companies, Lewis said.
“One person can only do so many things. At least it’s a start,” Lewis said.
Heller said Monday that person would get the “unit,” or firetruck, where it needs to be, more quickly than it has gotten there.
“It’s somebody responding from our area,” Heller said.
If other Fairplay fire company members are available, they would meet the driver at the fire hall or the scene, he said.
“We’re taking a chance,” Heller said, admitting it’s a “hit-and-miss thing” regarding whether another fire company member is available to respond during those hours.
Dustin Drive fire
One of the weekday incidents Fairplay failed to respond to within 10 minutes was a house fire at 7198 Dustin Drive on April 20, 2011, according to Lewis and a copy of Fairplay’s response log for that incident that was provided by the county.
That fire resulted in the destruction of the Carder family’s four-bedroom home and the death of five pets, said Stacy Carder.
Four fire companies, including Fairplay, two EMS companies and the county’s special operations unit were dispatched at 1:36 p.m. for that fire, Lewis said.
A Sharpsburg engine tanker arrived first, at 1:47 p.m., followed by several other units from various fire and ambulance companies, Lewis said.
Fairplay never had a fire engine or tanker respond, but had two utility trucks carrying a total of five people arrive at the house fire at 2 p.m. and 2:23 p.m., Lewis said.
Heller said Fairplay had nine qualified firetruck drivers at the time of the Dustin Drive house fire, but none of them was available at that time. Four of them worked in Hagerstown at jobs they could not leave, two worked in Frederick, Md., one worked in the Washington, D.C., area, one was a truck driver who does short and long hauls, and one was a farmer who couldn’t make it to the call, he said.
“(We) depend on the mutual-aid department to help us out,” Heller said.
Sharpsburg Fire Chief Allen James also sent a letter to the commissioners supporting Lewis’ recommendation for the Fairplay fire company.
In his letter, James references the added call volume and operational costs Sharpsburg has incurred because of the calls to respond to Fairplay’s primary service area.
James said Monday that Sharpsburg Volunteer Fire Co. is “willing to accept that cost for the betterment of the community” because its members believe in the ultimate goal of getting the Fairplay fire company reorganized so it is self-sustaining again.
James said he also was concerned about potential burnout for volunteer firefighters in the surrounding communities who assist on service calls in Fairplay’s primary area.
So far, James said, he hasn’t heard of or seen any indications of burnout at his department.
James said volunteer fire companies have times when they are understaffed, but for Fairplay, it’s a “more frequent” issue.
Bragunier said being a firefighter is an inherently dangerous job, but the situation can become more dangerous when it takes longer for the first firetruck to get to the fire because the structure can weaken as the fire spreads.
The fire can be “too far gone to risk our lives, or so far along when (firefighters) go in that structural support is gone, and someone could get hurt or killed,” Bragunier said.
The Carders plan to attend Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.
“I wouldn’t want to see the fire department literally shut down, as in not be there,” said Michael Carder, who said he supports a suspension. “I would like to see somebody take charge of it and make it a functional fire department.”
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