A letter to the editor outlining concerns at the Milton Fire Department has resulted in an outpouring of online support for first responders in town.
However, Milton Police Department Chief Robert Longo says his officers are not directly targeting volunteer firefighters on their way to the fire hall. Longo says officers are cracking down on traffic violations throughout town limits.
“I have a deep respect for the fire department,” Longo said. “My issue is we've had complaints, and we address all complaints.”
Longo said his department recently received eight or nine complaints from residents about volunteer firefighters speeding through town while responding to calls. Since then, Longo said, only one volunteer firefighter has been ticketed.
But it's not just speeding, he said – it's passing in no-passing zones, tailgating and other traffic offenses. He said the one speeding ticket issued to a volunteer could have actually been four tickets for a series of traffic-related violations.
The Milton Fire Department is an all-volunteer agency, like most fire companies in Delaware, said Fire Chief Lester “J.R.” Clark. Volunteers usually put on their four-way signals when responding to the fire house because there is no state law that allows them to outfit their personal vehicles with any kind of lights; blue lights seen on some vehicles responding to calls are reserved for fire police.
“In 40 years, I've never known of anybody getting a ticket,” Clark said.
On average, 25 to 30 volunteers respond when the fire house's siren goes off. They all speed to get there, he said.
“When they hear the fire siren, we're not speeding to get home. We're speeding to the fire house to save someone's life or property,” he said.
Clark said if volunteers are pulled over before they get to the fire house, it could pose a public safety issue by limiting resources.
“Especially if someone's life is in danger,” he said.
Both veteran and new volunteers argue that the idea police are targeting volunteers is disheartening. Clark and crew leader Bill Wright said many volunteers have removed Milton Fire Department plates from their vehicles and are no longer using flashing lights when responding to calls for fear of being targeted by police.
“What is too fast to save someone's life?” Wright asked. Wright said neighboring states like Pennsylvania permit firefighters to use lights on their vehicles when responding to the fire house, and that perhaps a new Delaware law should be put in place to protect both volunteers and residents in the face of an emergency response.
“When firemen stop coming because they're afraid of getting a ticket, everybody loses,” Clark said.
State Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, said the concept of having volunteers equip vehicles with lights has been debated in the past.
“We should have people understand that there may be some tolerances for emergency type of lights, but overall it’s the volunteer firemen throughout the state that are not in favor of having emergency lights for their firemen,” he said, adding that liability concerns, training and insurance issues are all reasons volunteer vehicles are not equipped with specific emergency lights.
Longo said the idea of Milton police specifically targeting volunteer firefighters is ludicrous.
“We're cracking down not just on the fire company, but on all quality of life issues,” Longo said. “There are a select few individuals who appear to think they are above the law.”
Longo said he recently tested a speeding theory himself. He drove about 7 mph above the 25 mph limit from Route 16 to the fire house and made the trek in about two minutes. He said that's plenty of time to catch the fire truck before it leaves for the scene.
“I want a working partnership with the fire company, and we have a job to do, too,” Longo said. “I am responsible for every person on Milton's streets.”
Longo said the major problem areas for speeding in town are Route 5, Atlantic Street, Union Street and Chestnut Street. As they crack down on traffic violations, Milton police have issued 531 tickets from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, a 61 percent increase compared to 2015, when only 330 tickets were issued.
“If we catch any speeders, they're going to get a ticket,” he said. “It all boils down to safety.”