Inside the garage of the red brick firehouse in Hillside, country music blares from the radio. Volunteer fire fighter Kenny Lagana, 17, sits on a washing machine, contentedly smoking a cigarette and watching his buddies. One of them is repairing something under the hood of his car, a shiny blue Corvette. Another volunteer fire fighter stands by, handing him tools, while two other volunteers energetically rub wax over their friend's car.
Inside the fire station, two paid firefighters sit at a card table watching television. Usually, they do not speak to the volunteers, and the volunteers do not speak to them. At least once in recent years a remark led to a fight.
"We're two different kinds of people," says Lagana. "Sometimes they're nice to us but usually they're not. They're like girls, you can't understand them."
If things sound a little tense in the Hillside fire station it's not surprising. Serving as a volunteer firefighter traditionally has been a badge of honor in recent years by professionals. In most suburban areas, the two work side by side, but the relationship has led to a running feud, with the professionals accusing the volunteers of being irresponsible and even dangerous.
The image of the volunteer companies reached a new low after an incident two weeks ago when a dozen volunteers from two fire houses swung fists and axes at each other after extinguishing a fire in Landover. But firefighters say the problem of volunteers who are undisciplined, unreliable and more interested in socializing than fighting fires is nothing new.
"The problem," says Ron Milor, president of the Prince George's County Firefighters Union, is that the volunteers can't be controlled."
The volunteers reply that the charges are unfair and that the paid firefighters are making them out of their own self-interest. Although they admit that occasionally there is drinking and fighting on the job, they insist it never interferes with putting out fires. And if dwindling numbers of men turn out for fires, they charge, at least part of the fault lies with the heavy-handed ways of the professionals.
"We get this feeling," said longtime volunteer Andrew Przekop, "of losing control."
Until the 1950s in Prince George's, all firefighters were volunteers, and there were more than 2,000 of them. Today the number of volunteers has dwindled to 1,000 in Prince George's, and there are 300 paid fire fighters.
Other suburban jurisdictions had all-volunteer firefighting forces until the 1920s. But as the areas increased in population, and the volunteers began working longer distances from their homes, they became less able -- and willing -- to fight fires. The jurisdictions then began hiring firefighters. Today, Montgomery County has 650 paid firefighters and about 400 active volunteers; Fairfax has 825 paid firefighters and about 400 active volunteers; and Arlington has 238 paid firefighters and 35 volunteers.
Colin Campbell, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Chiefs in the District, believes that the area's suburban jurisdictions should try to keep as many volunteers as possible. "The volunteers save the jurisdictions a helluva lot of money," said Campbell. "The counties couldn't afford to provide the level of fire protection they're providing now if it weren't for the volunteers."
Campbell believes instances of drinking and fighting among volunteers are the "exception rather than the rule."
In Prince George's County, there are 42 firehouses, and professionals as well as volunteers work out of each of them. During the day, while the volunteers are at their regular jobs, there are two or three professionals in each fire house. At night, only one professional works in each fire house, and the operation is largely the responsibility of the volunteers.
Union officials in Prince George's object to the fact that a volunteer is the fire chief of each fire station. They say that a paid firefighter in each fire station should have some authority over the volunteers. Otherwise, they say, the volunteers' lack of discipline could result in tragedy.
As evidence, a union official cites a log kept by County Fire Chief Jim Easteppe which records 12 instances during the past two weeks when volunteers failed to respond to fires, and 42 instances in which not enough volunteers responded to fires. In each of those cases, the paid firefighters had to fight the blazes themselves, or with only a few volunteers, resulting in more damage to homes and businesses than necessary.
In addition, say the union officials, the professionals should have authority over the volunteers to keep the volunteers from repeating performances such as the one that occurred on Jan. 2, when volunteers were drinking in the Hillside station, accompanied by two teen-aged girls, according to a memo filed with the county fire chief.Two days later in the same fire station, according to another memo, "a fight broke out between a volunteer and his wife. She required hospitalization and surgery. " The memo adds, "Other situations have included threats to career personnel, verbal abuse and drinking at all hours of the night."
"We want volunteers to be responsible, trained and accountable, and we want to have someone accountable at the head," said Milor, the union president.
A spokesman for the country fire department, Lt. Warren Matthews, believes the system of having volunteer chiefs over professionals is a good one, and should not be changed. He points out that volunteer chiefs must have at least five years of experience and 400 hours of training. In a few cases they have less than the required experience, but in those cases they do not have authority over the professionals at the scene of a fire, just in the firehouse.
For example, The volunteer chief of the Forestville station, Paul Thorne, a plumber, has had more than 10 years of experience. The volunteers in his station are generally considered orderly and disciplined. However, Dan McCarthy, a laundry employe who is the volunteer chief of the Hillside station, has only a few years of experience. McCarthy refused to discuss his experience or the conduct of his company.
The volunteers have been losing control over the fire department since 1970, when county residents of each neighborhood paid a special tax to support their local fire station, and the volunteer firefighters made all the decisions on how to spend the money. In some cases, the fire stations accumulated huge bank accounts and elaborate firefighting equipment.
"They bought new fire engines like you and I might trade Volkswagens every three years," said one critic.The Clinton volunteer fire company purchased a fire truck with a 100-foot aerial ladder, even though there was not a building in Clinton higher than 60 feet. The Kentland station had so much money that the volunteers were planning to buy a country club.
All of that changed when the county assumed control over the volunteer fire stations. The volunteer chief of each station became accountable to the head fire chief in Upper Marlboro, who decided how much money each station would get and how that money should be spent.
Although morale has been a problem in many firehouses, the camaraderie that traditionally has characterized volunteer units is still alive.
In Prince George's, at least half the vounteers are in their late teens and early 20s. They are plumbers, mechanics and truck drivers. The firehouse is a sort of clubhouse for them, a place where they can escape their girlfriends and mothers and wives, hang out with the guys, and sometimes do something exciting together, like going to a fire.
"You know how some guys to to a bar for somebody to talk to?" asks Sam Lagana, 26, a truck driver who has been a volunteer for five years. "Well, we come here."
At the Hillside fire station, when the volunteers aren't repairing or waxing each other's cars, they shoot pool, eat in the kitchen, and clean the fire engines. Each volunteer sleeps in the firehouse at least one night a week, in a room full of beds that they have dubbed the "heartbreak hotel."
They think of their firehouse as a sort of high school, which is naturally better than others. In the spring, they play softball against other volunteers from other fire stations. In the summer, they shine up their fire trucks and hope that theirs will be judged shinier than the next station's.
Then there are the wives of the volunteers, who belong to the Ladies' Auxilliary. They run bingo games in the fire stations on Friday nights. At least once a month, they have a meeting, which they open with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance and a roll call. Once a week, they go bowling, competing against auxiliaries of other fire stations.
Some of the wives aren't especially happy about their husbands spending so much time in the firehouse, but they have learned to accept it."I guess they like riding fire trucks and fighting fires," shrugged Sam Lagana's wife, Sandra.