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Baltimore County volunteer fire companies burned by ARPA

Fire gear at the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company. Credit: John Lee
Fire gear at the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company. Credit: John Lee

The American Rescue Plan Act is creating winners and losers when it comes to firefighters. Baltimore County is using some of the $160 million it’s getting in ARPA money to give its paid firefighters a $3,000 bonus.

But its 29 volunteer fire companies will not see a dime.

That news comes as the county’s volunteer fire companies struggle financially through the COVID-19 pandemic.

On a recent tour of the Pikesville Volunteer Firehouse, company vice president Rob Gould laid out a firefighter’s protective gear, including a helmet, coat, pants, boots and gloves.

“This is about $3,000 right here.”

Gould said they can’t afford to have enough gear to go around so volunteers sometimes have to share.

“And if they show up at the same time, well then you’ve got to go move and try to grab somebody else’s gear.”

Gould opened the side doors of one of the company’s fire trucks to display all kinds of gear stored there like axes, fans, and saws.

“All this is very expensive,” Gould said.

The volunteers work alongside the county’s paid firefighters under a single chain of command. Gould said they work the same fires, accidents and other calls for help.

The county announced in April it was going to use American Rescue Plan money to give its paid first responders a one-time, $3,000 bonus. Gould said the volunteers felt dissed by that, and that they found out about it in an email.

“To learn of that payment at a time where we were out there as much as anybody, arm in arm, putting our lives on the line for COVID, and to not even get a head’s up. That was a bit of a, I would say kick in the gut.”

Gould said it’s about respect as much as it is about the money.

At a recent public hearing on how to spend the $160 million, Jasmine Clemons, a senior policy manager for the county’s office of government reform, said they looked into paying the volunteers.

“At this juncture it doesn’t seem to be an eligible expense,” Clemons said.

That’s because the money comes with strings attached and one big string is they can only pay county employees.

“All of it has been defined by Congress first and then the Department of Treasury has issued additional guidance,” Clemons said. “And so, we have to follow that to the tee because this is federal money.”

The county also isn’t allowed to give the money to the fire companies rather than the volunteers.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said they will look at next year’s county budget to see if they can make it up to the volunteer companies.

“Because they do incredible work and we’re grateful for it,” Olszewski said.

But in the meantime, the county’s 29 volunteer fire companies have taken a hit during COVID-19.

Michael Connelly, the vice president of the Baltimore County Volunteer Firefighters Association, said a survey last December found their fundraising numbers were down $1.2 million.

Connelly said, “A lot of our organizations, especially those in the rural areas, have banquet halls. During COVID, all of that was shut down. So they lost all of their funds from their hall rentals.”

Other fundraisers, like festivals and concerts, dried up too.

The county this year gave the volunteer companies nearly $9 million to help with day-to-day operations. Connelly said fire companies in poor neighborhoods rely more heavily on that money than the ones in more affluent areas like Pikesville that have an easier time raising money.

Rob Gould in Pikesville said COVID made fundraising hard for them too. They are running in the red.

“The challenge for us has been to gain that momentum back.”

Gould said the volunteer firefighters are saving the county about $60 million a year.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2