County, Thomas Drive VFD settle dispute

CONFLICT: A letter from the Thomas Drive Fire District chief spurred debate and a meeting that resolved old grievances, firefighters hope.

County officials and officers of the Thomas Drive Volunteer Fire Department ironed out differences Wednesday that could have threatened the future of fire protection in the Thomas Drive area.

"There’s going to be issues come back up again," volunteer fire Lt. John Miller said. "But I think we can pretty much eliminate anything like this happening again."

Miller also is vice president of the Thomas Drive Volunteer Fire Department Inc. board of directors.

In a letter Monday to county Emergency Services Chief Bob Majka, Tim McGarry, chief of the Thomas Drive Fire District, had ordered that all paid county firefighters and county-owned equipment "be removed from both Thomas Drive Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. locations."

"The justification for this action is the continued lack of cooperation from county staff at the Fire Services Division level to resolve issues between the volunteer district and the Career (Paid) personnel," McGarry wrote.

After their meeting with Majka, Assistant Emergency Services Chief Mark Bowen and Deputy County Manager Joy Bates Thursday, the Thomas Drive officers agreed to retract the letter.

"We are committed to continuing to work together," Majka said after the meeting.

After receiving McGarry’s letter earlier this week, the county was prepared to see its lease with Thomas Drive end and to find an alternative means of providing fire protection in the Thomas Drive area.

Thanks to Wednesday’s meeting, that won’t be necessary, Majka said.

"We will not be going anywhere," he said.

The fire department, a nonprofit corporation, owns the fire stations and leases them to the county so they can be covered under county insurance.

The county has a legal responsibility to provide fire protection in unincorporated areas.

In recent years, it has done so with a mix of volunteers and paid firefighters. Throughout the 10 districts, there are 225 volunteers and 18 paid firefighter positions.

The Thomas Drive district has three paid firefighters, but is budgeted for six. All the district fire chiefs are volunteers. While they are not officially county employees, fire chiefs are part of the county’s command structure, and paid and volunteer firefighters report to them, Majka said.

Personnel issues involving paid firefighters are supposed to be addressed first at the district level, and if they can’t be resolved there, referred to the county’s fire services division.

Miller said McGarry’s letter was meant to be an "attention-getter," to let the county know the seriousness of the problems in the Thomas Drive district. He said those problems are the result of "growing pains" associated with the transition to a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters.

Thomas Drive actually has had paid firefighters since 1985, but they previously were paid from the department’s internal funds, rather than being county employees.

The county’s move to begin hiring its own paid firefighters gave rise to questions about chains of command and to conflicts between paid firefighters and volunteers.

Miller said the discussion Wednesday included the need to merge the training of volunteers and paid firefighters so everyone gets the same training.

He said the Thomas Drive officers and county officials also established ground rules for dealing with problems that arise in the future, so that they don’t get blown "out of proportion" as they did this week.

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