(May 31, 2013) The Ocean City Police Commission’s plan to buy military vehicles for water rescue has raised the ire of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company, which fears that the move will further encroach on the OCVFC’s rescue responsibilities following an alleged breakdown in communication and several ill-advised rescue attempts during Hurricane Sandy.
OCVFC Chief Bo Duke voiced his concerns to the City Council this week regarding the proposal to buy a surplus military vehicle – either a Humvee or a two-and-a-half ton truck – that could navigate high water and be used for evacuation during flooding events. The idea was recommended to the council last week by the city’s Police Commission.
However, Duke feared that the purchase would further the issues experienced during Hurricane Sandy last fall. The OCVFC, he said, has a number of specially trained personnel with specific equipment such as wetsuits, waders and their own boats specifically outfitted to perform water rescues. But after successfully evacuating a number of stranded people, the fire department stopped receiving such calls for service.
“For some unknown reason, the fire service was not dispatched to any more water rescue calls,” Duke said. “Then, the first thing I heard was the dispatch for water rescue calls on the police channels. The fire service was not getting the calls.”
Instead, Duke said, it appeared that the Ocean City Police Department had assumed rescue responsibilities after having received National Guard personnel and vehicles that were able to navigate the high water.
“I made a call and expressed my concern and disbelief,” Duke said. “I see National Guard and OCPD personnel, soaking wet and freezing, having dropped by the fire house to use our waders and to dry off. They also had no life jackets for their victims.”
“I was seriously concerned that ill-equipped guard and police were performing a task which we in the volunteer company were specifically equipped and trained for,” Duke continued. “That would be like allowing the fire service to respond to a bank robbery and not telling the police about it until the firefighters walked into the police station with the suspects.”
Duke requested that the city thoroughly investigate why the fire company ceased to be called for rescues in the middle of the storm, something that seemed to raise concern among elected officials, too.
“That sounds like somebody overstepped their bounds, if you ask me,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic. “The fire company, in my eyes, is responsible for the rescue of people and not police officers who are not necessarily trained to do that.”
Any protocol decision likely came from the Public Safety building at 65th Street, where the city centers its emergency operations during crisis events.
“My concern is that [the emergency operations center] wasn’t staffed with some type of liaison that would’ve let you know what the situation was,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “All the preparation and equipment in the world isn’t going to do any good unless the communication is there.”
“I’m at the ‘boots on the ground’ level,” Duke said. “I’ve never been in the EOC during an emergency, and I know it’s a busy place … so I can’t really speak to what the thinking was at that level.”
City Manager David Recor assured Duke that the Police Commission’s recommendation was not an attempt to usurp the OCVFC’s duties.
“The Police Commission did not get to that level of discussion,” Recor said. “I do not believe there was any intent to outfit a police department crew for emergency operations.”
The commission did recommend that any rescue vehicles acquired by the city be under the purview of the town’s Emergency Management Department, which oversees dispatch and operations of both the OCPD and the fire department.
“You’re still talking about Emergency Management, which is [Director of Emergency Services] Joe Theobald’s group, and what I’m hearing is that this should fall specifically under the fire company,” Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said.
The OCVFC has reason to be wary of surreptitious vehicle purchases resulting in command changes. In 2007, the city’s plans to purchase an extra fire truck revealed an alleged plan to expand the paid fire service, place it under the purview of Emergency Management, and have the OCVFC service West Ocean City exclusively.
The subsequent row resulted in the formation of the current Ocean City Fire Department, which places both volunteer and career firefighters under a unified but independent command structure.
“We need to sit down and fix it,” Council President Lloyd Martin told Duke. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”