DOVER — More than 50 members of fire companies throughout Delaware descended upon the Delaware State Fire School on Wednesday to participate in a two-hour public hearing regarding House Bill 193 and an amendment to the bill.
The discussion got passionate at times, as many firefighters offered their support, while just as many appeared to oppose the controversial legislation designed to give the Delaware State Fire Prevention Commission the power to rule on department grievances.
Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, who sponsored the proposal, along with fellow Reps. William Carson, D-Smyrna; Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere; and Kim Williams, D-Newport, described it as a chance to gather input regarding the bill and, specifically, four items in an amendment to the bill.
“This is your bill,” Rep. Short said to those gathered Wednesday. “This is your time to be able to change or do whatever you want to make it work. I’m of the opinion that this is a good move, and we need to do it for us, rather than have someone else do it for us.
“We’re not your adversaries. That’s not the case. We’re here to support you and help you understand this.”
The items included in the amendment obligate the State Fire Prevention Commission to notify fire companies if one of their members is accused of misconduct. It then allows that fire company a 90-day period to resolve matters before the commission becomes involved.
If the fire company cannot resolve a matter after the 90-day period, the commission will hear and resolve the complaint. The named fire company also may waive the 90-day period, if it so chooses.
The added language to the bill also clarifies that the commission will not have jurisdiction over matters involving criminal offenses under the Delaware Code and will refer such matters to the proper law enforcement authority.
Additionally, the amendment removes the immunity provision of the bill, which would have granted the commission and individuals acting on its behalf absolute immunity for acts committed while performing their duties within this section.
The commission’s current responsibilities include overseeing the state fire school, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and EMTs.
“It is not the intent of the fire commission to investigate incidents but to allow an investigator or team of investigators to handle every situation,” Commissioner Ron Marvel said. “The commission would not be a dictator over fire services, as it would have fire personnel look at and create the proper regulations.”
Six of the commissioners are appointed by the governor, while the seventh is the most recent past president of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighter’s Association. All are members or past officers of fire services, according to Mr. Marvel.
Currently, complaints within fire departments are handled in-house. If a person believes a department’s ruling is unjust, his or her only option is to file a lawsuit.
House Bill 193, along with Amendment 1 — which was introduced by Rep. Short in May — were met with a mixed reaction at the hearing Wednesday.
Greg Hocker, president and captain 3 of the Millville Volunteer Fire Co., said the issues are bigger than what they seem, adding that the amendment came “out in the 11th hour. None of us had time to even take the amendment back to our companies, and they want us to (develop recommendations and) vote on it.”
He continued, “This is probably the most controversial thing we’ve had to deal with in a very long time, and I know people that are for it, and I know people that are against it. But this is putting the burden on the fire service here in Delaware, and it’s really, really, really upsetting because we are one.”
He said he is most bothered by the time frame of it all.
After the bill was introduced, and with time running out in the legislative session this summer, DVFA asked Rep. Short to table the bill until January 2022, which was formally done June 24.
With the delay, DVFA has until Dec. 15 to submit its recommendations regarding the proposed rule changes to the General Assembly.
“So now, we are coming into December for a final vote from the DVFA, not knowing the answers,” Capt. Hocker said. “There could be another amendment to come, and now, we’ll have to take it back to our companies.
“I’m the one who made the motion for Sussex County to not support it (last week). The transparency’s been wrong. I feel like we don’t need this. This has been detrimental to the fire service, if you want to admit it or not.”
At a meeting Oct. 19, Sussex County volunteer fire companies voted 13-5 not to support the bill, with three companies abstaining.
Scott Bundek, Little Creek Volunteer Fire Co. chief and chief of St. Francis Emergency Medical Services, said he doesn’t see any issues with giving the state’s fire commission greater responsibility, adding that it’s happening everywhere else, so it’s bound to happen to fire companies, too.
“They cannot stop that (public oversight) train from coming,” Chief Bundek said. “Here’s a couple of things that everybody needs to think about. First off, EMS service has been overseen by the fire commission for many years, but most recently, in the last couple of years with an investigator and a person that does that.”
He added that the commission does not overstep any boundaries with the EMTs, so he doubts that it will when it comes to fire companies.
“I have 131 EMTs that report to me,” said Chief Bundek. “Since that regulation’s occurred, does anybody want to guess how many times the fire commission has contacted me? None. There’s never been an investigation, and look, we fire people all the time.
“I know that they go to the commission, and they might try to say this or say that or point this finger, or they don’t agree with something that goes on, but (the fire commission doesn’t) get involved in our business because that’s what the regulation says.”
He added, “I’m worried that we’re having this conversation, and we’re wasting all this time on something that’s going to happen anyway.”
Chief Bundek, among others, did say that he had concerns regarding penalties and other issues that were not clear in the legislation.
Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Co.’s President Matthew Smith, Chief Buddy Willey and EMS Capt. Bo Thomas each signed a letter noting their opposition to HB 193.
“There are no parts of HB 193 that we feel merit its passage,” the letter stated. “The broad reach and unintended consequences of HB 193 are too large to ignore, and its future impacts should be considered. Additionally, we question the need for the bill’s vague language, and the sponsor’s long-term intent.”
The letter went on to say, “In 2011 a similar effort was proposed and soundly defeated. Once again, we are confronted by the Delaware State Fire Commission attempting to spread their authority, without merit. Once again it appears that we are creating a solution for a problem that does not exist. This unneeded solution of bureaucratic control is counterintuitive to the whole identity of volunteerism.”
Rep. Short defended HB 193 and its amendment Wednesday, saying it is a bill that has been discussed for two years and that it did not appear out of thin air.
“This topic on how the fire service would be overseen has been discussed in meetings for a good two years,” he said. “It was brought forth in a number of association meetings in New Castle, Kent and Sussex. We’re overseeing this fire service as one of the only remaining commissions in state governments.
“The alternative to some of these discussions was, maybe we should be under a cabinet form of government. Well, I personally have resisted that and the reason why, if you’re under a cabinet form of government, there is an appointed secretary and an undersecretary, accorded by the administration to run those departments, and that’s it.”