Uncanny timing of inept city politics is highlighted by a working fire with people trapped.
In Salisbury’s City Council meeting on Monday evening an error in the information regarding a SAFER grant boiled over into an ongoing power struggle between the mayor and city council members. Despite being delayed in submitting the information months ahead of time by the mayor, fire department officials “scrambled” three days before the deadline to get their request in. The $1.4 million requested would allow the department to hire and support 12 firefighters for two years and helped reduce response times. Salisbury is a combination department working out of three stations with minimal volunteer support. The department hasn’t hired since 2006 and the number of uniformed firefighters has dropped from 64 to 61.
Once submitted, the application came back in order to correct an entry error and receive proper city approval. FEMA reportedly gave allowance for the department to make the corrections and add the additional funding but when three city council members noted the mistakes they carried the vote to reject the whole application. Between the mayor and the council, finger-pointing over who was responsible for the problem with the grant escalated into the council taking the grant off the meeting agenda and the mayor pointing out additional times the council has cut the city short. The councilmember’s reasoning for rejecting the grant was that the additional funds would have to be paid by the city. The mayor and fire department disagree. One councilmember put the nail in the coffin by reportedly stating doubt that response times would be compromised. No doubt, as local news reports, citizens in Salisbury who have even the slightest concern are left confused. On Thursday, the mayor learned from FEMA officials that their grant application deadline would be extended to September 4. The mayor and city council are scheduled to take another look at this in an upcoming work session and hopefully not reject, twice, the much needed funding.
A few hours later after the council sesson…
Just before 0300 hours on Tuesday, Salisbury and neighboring Fruitland Fire Company were alerted for the house fire with reports of people trapped at 224 Hazel Avenue. The first arriving crew was greeted with fire showing from the first floor, Side Alpha and extending rapidly up the two and a half-story dwelling. Due to the significant amount of fire, 10 occupants reportedly jumped from the second floor to escape. Two children were among those who escaped. Despite the amount of fire, officials credit a Salisbury City police officer for coming across the fire and calling it in. Approximately 40 firefighters fought the fire for approximately an hour and a half.
The Salisbury Fire Department is home to me. One of two departments I started out in, many of the company and chief officers were firefighters when I was there. Over the years it has changed. The department has been shaped sometimes against its will by city politics, former chiefs, and a growing population that doesn’t recognize that fire safety is just as important as being protected from crime and having good schools.
Like most small towns and cities, Salisbury has to deal with a general public that always seems to know the “real story”. Regardless of the social soap opera the men and women of the fire department have remained steadfast in protecting the city they live in, work in and play in. Surely they could give it up and take on a job in larger, busier departments. The volunteers could drop back as well, seeing how hard it is to receive basic support from among both sides of the city’s administration. Accepting a grant that adds to staffing helps when the volunteers are on a decline; rejecting it says you are okay with “getting by.”
Fortunately the members of the department, career and volunteer, find satisfaction in the simple job they do – why else would they show up? All they ask is that when they have to face the locals who get sick, wreck their vehicles or have to jump out a window, that the city leadership has their back. The consequences of getting by or not believing response times will be affected will eventually show up on scenes in the future. The ambulance that didn’t get to the call in time, the person who burned up because they couldn’t jump, each will highlight a department that is struggling to keep up with demand.
Hopefully the City of Salisbury leaders and public will stop taking for granted that fires are few and only happen to other people. Thinking that and putting all your hope in a small crew and mutual aid could be as risky as having to jump from the second floor.
Bill Carey is the daily news and blog manager for Elsevier Public Safety (FireRescue Magazine/Firefighter Nation, JEMS and LawOfficer sites.) Bill also manages the FireEMSBlogs.com network and is a former volunteer lieutenant with the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George's County, Maryland.
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