Md. Volunteers Battle Unified Chief Bill

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. -- The chasm between career and volunteer firefighters is widening as the two sides solidify their positions on County Councilman Michael J. Knapp's controversial bill to bring both groups under one fire chief.

Volunteers, fiercely protective of their independence, are vowing to kill the bill, which they say would discourage volunteers, cost taxpayers a hefty sum to replace volunteers with paid firefighters, vest all authority in one fire "czar" and weaken the role of the policy-making Fire and Rescue Commission, which has two volunteer representatives.

"Our biggest concern is the loss of local community voice for fire and rescue," Michael Weiner, president of the Community Volunteer Fire Rescue Association Inc., the political arm of the volunteer firefighters, said Nov. 19, a day after a packed public hearing before the council. "We plan to still urge every voter to call the council to kill the bill."

John Sparks, head of the paid firefighters union, IAFF Local 1664, called the volunteers' reaction "much ado about nothing."

"We should have had a fire chief 20 years ago," Sparks said. "The friction between the two groups grows larger and larger. We need to do this now to stop the friction."

Montgomery County has a combination system in which the county's 930 paid firefighters work alongside about 500 active volunteer firefighters at 19 volunteer fire and rescue departments. The arrangement has led to turf battles and feuds over seemingly trivial issues: For instance, the firefighter union's proposal to put its logo on volunteer fire trucks sparked an uproar in April 2002.

In a 1998 reorganization, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) created a fire administrator and a Fire and Rescue Commission to formulate and implement policy. He also created a career chief to oversee operations of paid firefighters and a chief to supervise the 19 volunteer departments.

That legislation was a compromise at best, said Thomas W. Carr, the chief over the paid firefighters.

Neither he nor acting Chief Frederick H. Welsh, who supervises volunteers, has authority over the 19 volunteer chiefs. The volunteer chiefs also do not have authority over one another, and Fire Administrator Gordon A. Aoyagi is hamstrung by a Fire and Rescue Commission that moves too slowly, Carr said.

"We must have centralized leadership," he said. "We cannot operate with 19 independent departments and be effective in this environment."

Of the 19 volunteer departments, Carr said he could hold up only four as "model fire stations": Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, Wheaton Rescue Squad, Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department and one of four stations under the Kensington Volunteer Department (Station 5). The rest, he said, suffer from inadequate volunteer staffing, inadequate maintenance of apparatus and other problems.

Moreover, the county needs to fall in line with other jurisdictions that have a single fire chief -- such as Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties and Fairfax County, Va., Carr said.

Solidified stances

At last week's sometimes contentious, often passionate four-hour hearing on Knapp's bill in Rockville, the battle lines were clear.

Volunteers and their supporters decried the bill as bad policy and a power grab, while unions and county administrators praised the proposed single-chief structure as vital in a time of elevated threats.

Among those backing the volunteers were the Montgomery County Civic Federation and a panoply of volunteer chiefs. Those supporting Knapp's overhaul included the unions, Progressive Montgomery and Duncan.

"We need a single, accountable fire chief. A fire department is a paramilitary organization, and paramilitary organizations depend on a known and clear chain of command to be successful," Bruce F. Romer, Duncan's chief administrative officer, told the council. "There are new realities, new demands. We need a prompt, coordinated response. We cannot continue to operate the way we are."

Pushing the case for one chief, County Attorney Charles W. Thompson Jr. outlined alleged incidents by volunteer firefighters -- ranging from sexual harassment to molestation -- that have gone unpunished because the fire administrator does not have the necessary authority over volunteers. He did not name names or specify when the incidents took place.

The comments drew a sharp response from Councilwoman Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton.

"If the county executive believes the system is broken, why didn't the county executive adjust the system earlier than Mr. Knapp's proposal?" she asked.

"No one should think we have been operating in a vacuum," Duncan spokesman David Weaver responded the day after the hearing. "When Knapp was elected, he took this initiative. We respect that and stand ready to support him."

Dueling accusations

The volunteers are fuming over Thompson's public airing of the harassment allegations.

"We did not throw dirty laundry out. We maintained our professionalism," Weiner said. "I think it is inappropriate to bring those up in the context of what to do about the organization."

Weiner said he could cite at least half a dozen incidents involving career firefighters.

"The difference is that [with career firefighters] we have the ability under county law to address the issues and to discipline," Weaver retorted.

Some are accusing the volunteers of using $500,000 in fire protection money to kill the bill.

Of that amount, $350,000 came from a private donor, Weiner explained, declining to reveal the donor's identity. The rest came from bake sales, bingo games and money the stations received from business arrangements such as rent from a cellular tower on station grounds, he said.

"It's a shame we have to spend a single penny," Weiner said.

The volunteers have hired The Aker Partners, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. They have rallied at the Rockville Volunteer Fire Station, posted signs urging residents to lobby the council, mailed more than 100 letters to the council and collected more than 600 signatures on an online petition.

If the bill passes, the volunteers are threatening to put it to referendum on next year's ballot.

There is little talk of middle ground.

The volunteers are accusing Duncan and the union of being behind Knapp's bill.

"We believe Duncan has his hands all over this bill," Weiner said. "He is clearly the puppeteer behind the scenes."

Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown was elected last year with help from Duncan and his End Gridlock slate, which pumped $26,000 into Knapp's campaign.

Weaver dismissed the notion.

"I think that's an insult to Knapp," he said. "Doug was proud to run with Mike Knapp in the last campaign. But Mr. Knapp is his own man."

As for the union's involvement, volunteers point to the $6,000 the Montgomery County Career Fire Association Inc. contributed in October 2002 to Knapp's campaign. Knapp also received $1,000 each from the political action committees of the Prince George's Professional Firefighters and the Baltimore County Firefighters.

"Labor is no doubt behind it," said Paul H. Sterling, volunteer chief of the Wheaton Rescue Squad. "If they can get rid of volunteers, it translates into more jobs for them."

Sparks said that the union does not need to instruct Knapp on what to do.

"He is head of the Homeland Security Committee, lead council member on Fire and Rescue Services," Sparks said. "He conducted a review of fire services and realized we were coming up short."

Knapp rejects the notion that his bill is payback.

Given the political sensitivities of the issue, Knapp said, he drafted the bill as objectively as possible, with a staff member and a fire and rescue analyst.

"I think it would be difficult for anyone to say that for a relatively small contribution, this would be the payback," said Knapp, who had a campaign coffer of about $126,000. "The reality is that this is a politically charged issue.

"I see flaws in what is a good system that needs to be improved on," he said.

Pros and cons

Capt. Ray Sanchez, a career firefighter at the Bethesda station on Old Georgetown Road, said he supports the idea of one chief.

He noted that a system to protect firefighters after the anthrax scare two years ago took months to implement because volunteers did not agree with some aspects of it. They accused the county of hoarding protective space suits.

"If we had one chief, we would have implemented it right away," Sanchez said. "The decision has to rest with one individual. Otherwise, if the chief says something and the 19 other department chiefs say something else, it ends up as a safety issue."

But the volunteers have their longtime supporters.

"I have long believed volunteers have been the backbone of the fire and rescue services," said Russell Hamill, a former Duncan aide who ran unsuccessfully this year for Rockville mayor. "The bill is ill-advised and unnecessary."

In an emergency, current law allows the county authority over volunteers. In addition, the county has had since 1972 an emergency management team comprising the fire administrator and heads of police, health and human services, etc. that takes charge in a crisis, said Hamill, who was a member of the team.

"Authority, single chain of command -- all those are red herrings," he said. "Power exists. There is a chain of command."

If history is any indication, Knapp's bill faces a rough road.

In 1967, the County Council voted to create a county fire chief to oversee the independent volunteer fire corporations. A year later the vote was overturned in a referendum championed by volunteers.

Fast forward to 1996, when the ballot question was put to voters: Should the county create a "super chief" position to oversee all firefighters? The voters said no again.

But Knapp and one of his co-sponsors, Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park, hold out hope.

"Many, many years of bad blood cannot be wiped away," Leventhal said. "But I'm optimistic we'll have a bill in the next few months."

A worksession on the bill is scheduled for Dec. 1 in Rockville.

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