Sitting at the Table

Sitting at the Table

Committee hears both sides of the proposed fire changes.

Paul M. Tiao asked the basic question. “What is the current problem, if you perceive a problem, and how does the bill address that?” he said.

Tiao is the chair of the public safety committee of the Western Montgomery County Citizen’s Advisory Committee. His committee met with County Councilmember Mike Knapp (D-2) and Ned Sherburne, chief of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase rescue squad to discuss Knapp’s bill to reshape the County’s Fire and Rescue services.

The bill would streamline the command structure and shift most of the power for day-to-day operations of the fire rescue service from the Fire Commission to the Fire Administrator.

Supporters believe that the measure is necessary in order to have one, accountable person in charge of how the county runs its services and how it responds to emergencies.

Detractors believe that it will vest too much power in one person, and will effectively shut the volunteer service out of the decision-making process.

“In many ways it is a question of authority,” Knapp said, to answer to Tiao. The current decision making process, when drawn as a flow chart, makes a circle. Each person in the circle is responsible for a part of the decision. “At the end of the day, no one in this circle owns all of these things directly,” Knapp said.

He also pointed to the response to Hurricane Isabel. “We had four different response plans going into effect,” Knapp said. “We had people in the same area responding to different commands.”

The reason that happened is that the current system was not used, said John Bentivoglio, a member of the board of Bethesda-Chevy Chase rescue squad.

In the current system, the County Executive has the authority to declare a “State of Emergency” and assume control of emergency response. “[The County Executive] could have declared an emergency in advance,” Bentivoglio said.

One of the major issues that detractors have with the bill is their belief that the Fire Administrator will have the ability to shift apparatus from one station to another with minimal public input.

This becomes particularly problematic when a piece of equipment is purchased with donations made directly to the volunteer departments from local residents.

Virtually all of the equipment at the two stations which serve Potomac was purchased in this way.

“We are concerned about the long-term transfer of apparatus,” Sherburne said.

Short term transfers, such as when one station is responding to a fire and a different station shifts equipment to cover the area, are routine. “You never have two adjacent stations without an engine,” Bentivoglio said.

Sherburne is more concerned about a piece of equipment being moved permanently to another part of the county which needs it.

Knapp points out that the County Council would oversee the fire administrator. Also, the administrator will be a part of a three-member board along with the chiefs of the career and volunteer fire services. “They can each make decisions, but they can’t do it autonomously,” he said.

The final issue discussed is the “memorandum of understanding” into which the various departments will be asked to enter with the county.

Each department will be required to state what sorts of emergency response it will be able to provide and when. “We don’t have a coordinated enough system to understand what is where and when,” Knapp said.

Bentivoglio countered that at each shift change, which takes place twice a day, dispatchers announce which pieces of equipment are out of service for the shift. “There is kind of a constant inventory,” he said.

Also, Bentivoglio was upset with the nature of the memoranda, he states that they can be amended by the council, but that the fire departments cannot amend them. “We are no more than vendors,” Bentivoglio said.

If a department is found to be in breach of the agreement, the county has the authority to seize the station building and equipment.

Knapp stresses that this is a worst-case scenario and he does not foresee it happening, but he says that the option must exist.

“The county is ultimately responsible to ensure that Fire/Rescue service is provided to members of the county,” he said.