12 Rockville volunteer firefighters suspended; 3 accused of theft

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010

Twelve members of a Rockville volunteer fire department have been suspended after late-night incursions into an apartment building's recreation room and a fire department warehouse this week, Montgomery County officials said Friday.

In the latest incident, which happened early Friday, shortly after midnight, three 17-year-old volunteer firefighters were arrested on burglary and theft charges, authorities said.

"When things like this happen, it's a black eye for the whole fire service," Assistant Fire Chief Scott Graham said.

Graham said the three tripped an alarm at the fire department warehouse on Dover Road, prompting the arrival of county police and Rockville police. Officers found stacked items just inside the door, indicating that the three were planning to leave with bio suits, a medical evacuation bag, a radio and charger, a flashlight, pry bars, an ax, a pipe wrench, rappelling equipment and a traffic vest, said Rockville Police Maj. Bob Rappoport.

"They were stockpiling goods," Rappoport said.

Officers later learned that the three had gotten a set of keys from a firehouse other than the Rockville one to which they are assigned. Graham dismissed the notion that they could have simply needed more supplies, saying the department properly outfits all its stations.

"There's no need for anyone for any reason to break in," he said. "It's not proper procurement procedure."

Those as young as 16 can join the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department. Depending on their training, they can fight fires under supervision when they are 17.

Eric Bernard, president of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, referred calls to Graham.

In the earlier incident, on Tuesday night, nine volunteers from the station entered the community room of an apartment complex on Maryland Avenue in Rockville, apparently to play pool or table tennis, Graham said.

Officials did not know whether alcohol was a factor in either incident.

No charges have been filed by police in the community room incident, Rappoport said.

Graham said the station, which is staffed by volunteers and paid firefighters, has enough volunteers to maintain adequate staffing levels even with the suspensions. He said the actions of the dozen do not impugn volunteers in general.

Graham said the incidents are particularly troubling because people so readily allow firefighters into their homes during an emergency. A heart attack victim on the floor of her kitchen, he said, shouldn't have to worry if a firefighter or paramedic goes into her bedroom for medication and sees her jewelry box.

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