WESTMINSTER, MD: In a move that has been discussed in station houses for more than a decade, a group of about 30 Carroll County fire fighters has officially voted to form a union. The vote to organize as a local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) occurred on Monday evening at about 6:00 p.m. at FOP Lodge 20 in Westminster, Maryland.
While not totally unexpected, this week’s vote comes on the heels of a Carroll County – Volunteer Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Medical Services bill which was just approved by the Maryland State Legislature. The bill – HB 984 (seen below) – allows Carroll County the leeway to begin the process of starting its own county-wide fire department. HB 984 was approved almost unanimously in both the House and the Senate and was signed by Gov. Hogan on April 24, 2018.
Currently, the county depends on fourteen independent volunteer fire companies to provide fire and other emergency services.
For the average Carroll County resident, the move to unionize may seem to make little difference. But some organizers contend that current inequities inherent in the volunteer system affect the insurance rating of more populated communities. They say that, even though the volunteer companies are currently offing the highest level of services that they can, without career staffing, equipment doesn’t always get out quite as fast as it should, and that hurts homeowner’s insurance rates. The website Insure.com seems to back up this assertion, in an April 2005 post which says in part:
“One factor that affects your home insurance premium is how well your city copes with fires. For example, if your town has a volunteer fire department, your premiums are likely to be higher than those in a community with a professional department.”
Union organizers say that, in comparative terms, Carroll County lags behind other central Maryland jurisdictions by anywhere from 10-20 years. The county maintains an all-volunteer system through an umbrella corporation called Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association (CCVESA). Fourteen departments (all separate corporations) around the county are responsible for fire and other emergency services. Thirteen of those companies have a portion of paid staff.
Each company gets money from the commissioners to hire a number of paid paramedics, EMTs, fire fighters and fire apparatus drivers. The paid professionals consist of both full and part-time employees. Volunteers are still in the mix, but the union organizers say the paid people shoulder the lion’s share of the work. On any given day, for example, the Westminster station might be staffed by six paid professionals and three volunteers.
Historically, the CCVESA has spoken on behalf of the volunteers. A local chapter of the IAFF would speak for the paid professionals.
“There are 84 full-timers in Carroll County right now. I think about 30 will be joining us,” said one of the organizers, who for personal reasons asked to remain anonymous. “We are going under the title, Carroll County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics (CCPFFP). So we’re sending our charter into the international. We have been told there are things that have to happen on their side, but that timetable would be rather short. They see how important it is for us, but we are not working in a reckless manner.
“One of the things we’ve heard is there is a lot of apprehension. This is people’s existence, and they’ve been talking about this move with other departments. There is a concern about where this move will be going – that there won’t be any retaliation from the volunteers association, or that we in the union will be vindictive.
“This is something on our side we see as extremely positive.
“We are here to advocate and build a relationship with the people we work with every single day – with the other professionals, with the volunteers and ultimately with the Carroll County Commissioners as well. We want to be able to move forward and have a positive effect on Carroll County.
“You know, the Volunteer Association has done a very solid job and they have to be commended for the things they done over the years. But we are seeing changes in the county. For us to be able to take control and make sure we are part of the dialogue in such a dynamic environment is important to us. We don’t want to be reactive. This is our livelihood. This is what we do to support our families,” the fire fighter said.
Max Nickey – President of the CCPFFP – is a Paramedic Fire Fighter at the Westminster station. Nickey told the Post-Examiner the Westminster company employs 24 full-time paid staff.
“This a big step forward for all the career staff,” said Nickey. “We’ve put a lot of work into this over the last couple of months. As the county commissioners and CCVESA move forward with the process of changing our fire and EMS system, we just want to have a seat at the table.”
Who might be against this move?
“I think there are a lot of people who are nervous about this, because of preconceived notions or what they have experienced in other places. I have heard murmurings where people say, ‘Oh, here comes the union. We’re gonna have issues now.’ That’s just not the case. When we make moves to help benefit the system, people have to remember that they are part of the system as well.
“Look, I realize we are in a conservative area. The City of Westminster won’t be impacted too much, because they receive county funds, so the dialogue about the future of emergency services actually rests at the county level. The county and the commissioners specifically may be nervous about the same notions as the volunteers – that we might come in and have unrealistic expectations. We’re not looking to come in and start making unrealistic demands. As I said, we just want to be part of the process.”
Nickey said he believes that the move would ultimately benefit all full-time fire fighters in Carroll County. But he stressed that the department would remain an open shop, and new employees would not be compelled to join the union.
Organizers maintain recognition of the union would have ancillary benefits for the volunteers. They cite, for example, one neighboring county, where a union negotiated health and safety initiative transferred over to the volunteers.
Michael B. Rund – President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland – told the Post-Examiner, “We’re absolutely thrilled for those guys.” but quickly added, “Right now, it really doesn’t mean anything.
“Those guys have decided to organize as a group, so they will be entitled to the training that the IAFF offers, and things like that. But they are not recognized by the county. They are not county employees. Right now, they are just a group who has decided to get together and be prepared for if and when they do become county employees. And that may never come.
“We have to remember, this is all very new. They will have our full support, but they don’t have collective bargaining, so they’re not bargaining contracts. As I told them last night, this is a marathon – not a sprint. It could take a long time for them to become county EMS and fire fighters – if that ever comes. That will be up to the commissioners in Carroll County to decide.”
Is this something that would necessarily be tied to Carroll County getting its own Fire Department?
“It would almost have to be,” said Rund, “because right now, the group is paid by the individual corporations. So right now, even if they were to recognize them, it’s not like they could bargain a contract for everyone in the county.
“They’re not trying to send a message that they are ready to come in and take over. That’s not the case at all. They’re just looking for the resources that we could provide, to take back to their volunteer organizations,” said Rund.
In preparing this story, the Baltimore Post-Examiner reached out to numerous officials in Carroll County, including State representatives, Carroll County Commissioners, the Carroll County Office of Public Safety, CCVESA and a number of Volunteer Fire Companies. All either declined to comment or did not return calls or emails asking for comment.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”