The continuing conflict between volunteer fire companies and local governments is not unlike an inextinguishable coal-seam fire — they smolder below the surface for years before the general pop- ulation becomes aware of it.
In both cases, friction can be the cause, as, in the case of these sub-surface coal fires, subterranean rocks grind back and forth, or, in the other instance, the missions of fire companies constantly rub up against the duties of government.
The latter is evident in Berlin and Ocean City, where fire com- panies must serve jurisdictions that far exceed municipal bound- aries, while local governments rightfully object to using municipal tax dollars to subsidize service to outlying areas.
Infernal disagreements are inevitable. Fire companies can’t sim- ply choose their areas of responsibility — that’s worked out by fire chief associations or county fire prevention bureaus to ensure the broadest possible coverage.
Similarly, local governments must look out for their residents’ and taxpayers’ interests, which do not include providing fire pro- tection for everyone within a several-mile radius.
This is why the Town of Berlin insists that not one dollar of its tax revenue be spent on the fire company’s out-of-town Station 3, but it’s also why the fire company needs Station 3 and maintains a separate fund to build it.
It’s also why the Ocean City officials apparently have asked the Worcester County Commissioners to assume full authority for West Ocean City coverage and why the Ocean City volunteers must respond regardless of who gets the tab.
Even though the county contributes significantly — and equally — to all county fire departments, it may no longer be enough to cover residential growth in unincorporated areas.
It could be that the only way to eliminate the friction between the towns and fire companies is to spare the towns by creating out-of-town fire districts with special taxing authority, and district boards to provide oversight.
Most likely, such a move would spark protests in these areas, but that would be fairer than the current situations and could prevent the occasional conflagration that all parties involved would prefer to avoid.