Compromise Led To Resolution Of Fire Bill In Maryland

A harried 40-minute recess last week marked the time it took Montgomery County Council members to craft a plan they hope will extinguish decades of division in the county's fire and rescue service.

The council's 9-0 vote May 4 was a stunning denouement to half a year of oft dramatic wrangling between a corps of volunteers who built most of the county's fire stations and paid firefighters who run most of the calls and have derided their unpaid counterparts as "hobbyists."

Framed by five hours of intense public discussion, the words that won every council member's vote were put together amid lunch and errands.

"I don't think anyone expected it to be a unanimous vote," Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park said.

Her colleagues agreed.

"What I was expecting ... was people would make a stand and dive toward the middle -- well, they didn't," said Councilman Michael L. Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg, the Public Safety Committee's liaison for crisis management.

Council members said they shared a sense that they needed to act now for two reasons.

Volunteers, who opposed plans to put them under the authority of a single, uniformed fire chief, wanted enough time to petition any changes to referendum on the November ballot.

And council members did not want to take up the issue again before the 2006 election or put it off for three more years.

Only two days after their vote, council members said they were somewhat reassured that reaction from the volunteers and the strength of the council's consensus have averted the threat of a referendum.

Instead, the county will install a uniformed fire chief with authority over both career and volunteer fire and rescue workers on Jan. 1, centralizing control in a system that for decades has combined sometimes competing agendas.

Nearly three hours of debate on the reform measure at the May 4 council session yielded only minor amendments and a reporting requirement that Councilwoman Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton offered to ensure that volunteers would get training opportunities equal to those of paid firefighters.

But a proposal offered to restore some limited policymaking power to the citizen-dominated Fire and Rescue Commission, and to garner key support from the volunteers, uncovered possibilities for compromise.

The proposal from Councilman Thomas E. Perez (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park failed, but earned, to the surprise of some, support of the reform bill's author, Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.

Perez -- backed by unions and, like other district members, strongly obligated to local concerns -- had been widely regarded as the swing vote on Knapp's reform.

"I could see the amendment Tom offered [was] probably the kind of amendment needed for the bill to pass," Knapp said, adding that he voted for Perez's plan to send a message.

"There was a little bit of poker playing," Knapp said, but "at that point the path became clear."

Soon, Subin was leading the way.

His legwork was key to the measure's passage, said Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring.

But first, there was a detour.

"I had to get to the bank," Subin explained.

Serendipity intervened, Subin said, when he ran into volunteer Andrew B. White, chairman of the county's Fire Board, and asked him if the career firefighters would be satisfied if the commission's policy review powers were limited to voting up or down measures proposed by the chief and doing so in 60 days rather than 90.

"He said, 'That's fair,'" Subin recalled. "Then, on the way out, I found a firefighter and ran it up the pole and found Knapp at lunch with some firefighters -- all in under 30 minutes," including a drive across Rockville to his law office.

Then Subin and Perez, who had already talked with firefighters, put together the amendment that carried the council, exhausted, over the finish line.

"We all decided we couldn't allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good," Perez said.

There remains some disagreement over whether the reform settles any substantive problems.

"I don't know," Praisner said.

Reforms do not include a provision that volunteers wanted that would have given local fire department chiefs rank equal to that of new career and volunteer division chiefs, coupled with a caveat (to satisfy career firefighters) that division chiefs could take over command at any incident.

Some council members called that a face-saving measure that is unnecessary because such situations would occur rarely.

But Councilman Howard A. Denis (R-Dist.1) of Chevy Chase calls the reform substantive.

"Feelings are real" because morale is important, Denis said.

In any case, Perez said, "now we can address the issue of building trust -- that is the unfinished business ... and fundamental challenge to whoever is the chief."

Subin said that if the new chief is not Thomas W. Carr Jr., who oversees career firefighters, "I'll just be floored and there will be a lot of disappointed folks, volunteers and career."

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan was expected to sign into law the fire legislation today.