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Md. officials back fire chief despite exodus of employees, safety violations, budget issues

Carroll County officials back Chief Michael Robinson saying recent problems are part of creating a new department

By Sherry Greenfield
Baltimore Sun

CARROLL COUNTY, Md. — The Board of Carroll County Commissioners continues to support the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, and its chief and director, Michael Robinson, despite some recent issues.

An exodus of employees, violations related to safety and health of firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians at the Manchester Volunteer Fire Company, and high budgetary costs, are expected issues when forming a new department, commissioners said in a statement issued Tuesday.

21 Carroll County fire, EMS employees have either quit or been fired in the last 10 months

“As leaders of Carroll County, public safety remains a top priority, and we place much of the safety and security of our residents in the hands of Carroll County’s fire companies and a successful Department of Fire and EMS,” the statement says. “The transition to a combination fire/EMS system is a huge initiative that will take years to fully implement.

“The board recognizes the major investment in the new system as well as the financial challenges and is committed to proceeding as needed for the success of the department.”

The commissioners’ support extends to Robinson, who was named director in September 2021 and is responsible for daily operations and development and implementation of department procedures. He also assists with hiring and earns an annual salary of $132,268.

“The board supports Chief Robinson and the transition to a county EMS service and is pleased to see the overall success of the new department,” commissioners said. “Issues are expected and situations such as personnel changes and the Manchester Fire Company situation are addressed and resolved as soon as possible.”

The push to create a combination paid and volunteer county fire service began in Carroll County more than a decade ago. In 2018, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation allowing the county to establish the new department and in October 2020, commissioners unanimously voted to pass an ordinance creating it. The county has been building the department since then.

Commissioners’ President Ken Kiler, who represents District 2, said in an interview that earlier decisions on how to form the department were problematic.

“Initially it was poorly planned,” he said. “The decision to man all 13 fire companies equally was poorly planned. It should have come down to something more geographically. You can’t keep throwing money on something poorly planned. You need to look at the geographics and place people strategically. What gets us the best coverage.”

Current Carroll County personnel have had to apply for new positions with no guarantee of being hired

Forming the new department has not come cheaply. In the $542.8 million operating budget for the current fiscal year, the department is allotted $23.5 million, including money for round-the-clock EMS coverage, and administrative and operational costs.

Crafting the county’s fiscal year 2025 operating budget, which starts July 1, was a frustrating process for commissioners during the past several months as they worked to eliminate a $12.4 million deficit. Funding fire and EMS was part of the frustration.

In the $545 million budget for fiscal 2025, the department will be getting $27,964,750, according to budget documents. That number could grow to $28,216,630 in fiscal 2026, documents show.

Kiler said he’s also not concerned with turnover within the department.

“I spent my whole life in construction,” he said. “People move around. A lot of that is normal. I think it’s the nature of the business.”

According to the county’s response to a March 20 Maryland Public Information Act request from the Carroll County Times, at the end of March, 21 employees had left the department over a 10-month period.

It is unclear whether these employees, including firefighters, emergency medical technicians, shift commanders, paramedics and two assistant chiefs, quit voluntarily for were fired.

The department in April was given the green light to hire a deputy chief of operations, who in part, could help reduce the turnover rate. This is a new management position to provide oversight and leadership for department operations.

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Meanwhile, Robinson said earlier this month, that the county believes the department is fully in compliance with the steps required to address safety and health violations at the Manchester Volunteer Fire Company.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health conducted an investigation of the company from Nov. 3, 2023, to April 30, 2024, which uncovered a series of violations, according to charging documents issued by the Maryland Department of Labor.

“At this time the county believes it is fully compliant,” Robinson stated in an email. “The county takes all violations seriously and works to ensure the safety of all employees.”

Kiler said he has full faith in Robinson’s leadership.

“For me, I feel like Chief Robinson is doing a good job,” he said. “We hired the right person.”

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