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Volunteers Have Burning Sensation

Council begins deliberations on fire service overhaul.

They want more. At the meeting of the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee, the committee members deferred action on a bill to revamp county fire and rescue service until members could gather more information.

Mike Knapp (D-2) who had introduced the bill and is the committee’s lead for fire and rescue services asked that the committee issue a letter requesting more comments.

Knapp noted that in spite of all the comments received at the public hearing on the bill, few if any gave specific comments about aspects of the bill which a group or person thinks should be changed.

The committee is now going to be requesting these specific comments. “The more specific the suggestions, the better,” said Committee Chair Phil Andrews (D-3).

Knapp also suggested that the committee schedule an evening worksession so that the interested parties who work during the day can attend.

Two members (Knapp and Michael Subin (D-At Large) of the three-member committee are co-sponsors of the bill.

Virtually all of Potomac’s fire service is provided by Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department’s two stations on River Road and Falls Road. Career firefighters are also assigned to both stations.

All of the county’s 19 volunteer fire departments are opposed to the bill.

Knapp started the worksession by explaining his rationale for the bill. If it passes, the bill would shift much of the day-to-day policy decisions from the seven-member fire/rescue commission to the Fire Administrator.

Supporters say it is necessary to have one, accountable person making the decisions. Detractors believe that it will remove public participation from the decision making process and marginalize volunteer firefighters.

Volunteer stations would also be required to enter into an agreement with the county stating how much service they could provide.

Supporters say this is necessary in order to assess what equipment will be available at any given time. Detractors say such agreements are just a first step toward a larger power-grab by the council.

Knapp said that he developed the bill to further refine and already good system. “We do have a good fire/rescue service, but the reality is that shouldn’t be where we want to rest,” he said.

Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large), asked some specific questions about the bill. Leventhal is not on the committee, but is a co-sponsor of the bill.

During the public hearing, several volunteers raised the possibility that the Fire Administrator could transfer equipment and people more easily from one station to another. They reason that this is unfair, since most equipment is purchased by donations from one community.

Leventhal questioned if these shifts would be more likely under the new bill.

While volunteers would still be able to go to their home station, they may be asked to go on calls that are farther away from the neighborhood, said Michael Cogan, a council staff member who is working on the bill.

Currently, volunteers frequently go on calls to other parts of the county, if the station which covers that area is out on another call.

Cogan explained that there would be a subtle difference in the rules governing the transfer of apparatus. “The rules would not change – who is making the rules would change,” said Cogan.

Andrews asked the council staff to develop an explanation of the way the county responds to an emergency situation now, and how it would do so under the new bill.

“I’m interested in how it would change on the very large, big countywide or regional emergencies.