Md. Volunteers Battle Unified Chief Bill

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.

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."

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