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Volunteers Left Hanging?

Legislation could change the structure of fire service in Montgomery County.

Who is in charge? The question drove County Councilmember Michael Knapp (D-2) to introduce changes to the County’s regulations governing the fire and rescue service.

The service currently has a hybrid system. The county has 33 fire stations, six of which are staffed entirely by career firefighters. The remaining 27 are volunteer stations.

Typically paid, career fire and rescue personnel will staff the stations during the day, while volunteers staff the nights and weekends. Some volunteer fire departments own their fire stations; all volunteer departments own much of the fire and rescue equipment. The volunteers raise money through fundraising and own many of the firetrucks and ambulances the county relies on.

Knapp, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee and is the lead for fire and rescue services in the Public Safety Committee, said that in his first months on the council he frequently dealt with controversy in the fire and rescue service. “Every six weeks we would have a new controversy,” he said.

The frequency of controversy led him to conclude that some change was needed. “Is there something deeper here that needs to be addressed?” he said. “There really were some underlying structural problems.”

The lack of clear lines of command were of primary concern to Knapp. “There is no place where it says, ‘this person owns this decision.’ We’ve really got a lack of accountability in decision making,” he said.

The potential for a major incident, like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, necessitates having a clear command structure, Knapp said. He notes that there are currently 21 fire chiefs, each of whom is equivalent in rank. “We run the risk of having 21 people make a decision simultaneously,” Knapp said.

Fire Commission vice chair and Potomac resident Ronald Ogens largely agrees with the plan of having one individual be accountable for making decisions in a crisis.

“There can’t be too many generals at the same rank,” Ogens said.

Knapp’s new proposal would place most of the power for administering the operations in the fire and rescue system into the hands of the Fire Administrator. The current Fire Administrator, Gordon Aoyagi, could not be reached for comment.

It is this power transfer which has many volunteer fire chiefs upset (see letter page 8), said Chief Jim Seavey, of Cabin John Park Volunteer Department which provides most of Potomac’s fire and rescue service. Aoyagi is not a firefighter and did not come up through the ranks. “You are essentially transferring power to people who have no experience,” Seavey said.

The current system, which allows the Fire Commission wide powers in administering the county department, is more democratic, Seavey said. The commission is made up of seven members representing career and volunteer firefighters and the public at large; members are appointed by the County Executive and confirmed by County Council. The Fire Administrator serves as chair in a non-voting capacity.

The commission would still retain the power to hear appeals and have a hand in the development of the Fire and Rescue Master Plan under Knapp’s proposal, but its role would become largely advisory.

Operational control — making the decisions at the scene of a large fire or other event — will fall to the Chief of the Division of Fire and Rescue Services, a position for a career firefighter.

Administrative control of the volunteer branch would be vested in the Chief of the Division of volunteer Fire and Rescue Services, a volunteer position.

“[The change] takes a tremendous amount of authority from the people and vests it in the [County] Executive and [County] Council,” Seavey said.

Ogens, a public at-large member of the commission who served on it from 1984-92 and then from 1998 to now, thinks the main problem with the proposed bill is that it puts the commission in a sort of limbo.

“If the commission is just going to be advisory, just put [the advisory role] in the hands of another body,” he said. “Either keep its power or get rid of it.”

Ogens believes that the commission could work as an oversight body, if its members were chosen selectively. He thinks, however, that as an advisory body it would be redundant. “There are already advisory bodies around,” he said.

Another issue which has the volunteers upset is the requirement that the volunteer departments provide an accounting for their equipment and readiness. Volunteers argue that this is veiled attempt to take control of volunteer stations and equipment.

But it is really designed to allow the Fire Administrator to be aware of the assets available at any one time, Knapp said. “We don’t have a system that allows us to see all of the pieces,” Knapp said. “We at least need to have a better clarification.”

Seavey think it is unreasonable to ask volunteer stations to guarantee a level of service due to the erratic nature of a volunteer system. “It’s the issue of trying to use the same formulas for career personnel and apply them to a volunteer organization,” Seavey said. “It is unfair that the volunteers commit themselves to such a formula.”

If a department is not able to provide the level of service which it has stated it would, the county has the authority to step in and take over management of the station. Seavey believes this is an unnecessary provision. “The response failure rate in Montgomery County is microscopic,” Seavey said.

Seavey thinks the true motivation behind the accounting is a power grab. “[It] is a smokescreen for the eventual dismantling of the volunteer service,” he said.

Knapp says this is not true. “We have to have a dual system,” he said, referring to the career/volunteer system. “If anything we’ve got to have more bodies, not less,” Knapp said.