To the untrained eye they all looked almost the same — crisp blue uniforms and looks of resolve. But those in the know needed only look at the shoulder to know where an individual stood.
On the shoulders of the hundreds of career and volunteer firefighters who came to a public hearing about proposed changes to the fire service are affixed the patches which signify which station a particular firefighter belongs to.
And even though most said this is not an issue of career versus volunteer, the applause said otherwise. Largely career firefighters are in favor of the changes that County Councilmember Mike Knapp (D-2) proposes for the fire service. As a rule, volunteers are opposed to the changes.
If the bill passes as written, much of the administrative power in administering the fire service would be shifted from the Fire and Rescue Commission to the Fire Administrator. Operational authority would be vested in the Chief of the career fire and rescue service.
The speakers largely stayed “on message” each side trying to hammer home their own set of presumptions.
County Executive Doug Duncan (D) generally supports the changes. “We need a single and accountable Fire Chief,” said Bruce Roemer, chief administrative officer for Montgomery County, who was speaking on Duncan’s behalf.
Councilmember Marilyn Praisner (D-4) was curious about why Duncan was choosing this time to act. “If the County Executive believes the system is broken, then why didn’t he send over legislation before this?” she said.
Accountability was the main theme of the bill’s supporters. They fear a 9/11 style attack in Montgomery County would be disastrous without one person making the major decisions.
Currently, all of the county’s 19 volunteer fire departments have autonomous chiefs. This has been the way the county has operated for approximately 100 years.
“We really believe that central command is critical,” said John Sparks of the Montgomery County Career Fire fighters. “Everyone must know who calls the shots.”
Those who support the bill have not, so far, identified a specific instance where this decentralized structure created a crisis.
Additionally, supporters of the bill leveled accusations of financial misappropriations. The volunteers are almost completely funded through donations. “I have a concern that taxpayer funds are not being accounted for,” Roemer said.
Praisner did not share those concerns. “We have a contract to audit each department,” she said.
Others accused the volunteers of using $500,000 in money that was intended to be donations to purchase equipment and training to fund their “Kill the Bill” campaign to defeat the legislation.
Volunteers have denied these accusations.
The volunteers who spoke largely were against the bill. They assert that the powers given to the Fire Administrator are too far reaching. They say that the changes would drive away many volunteers and that the county would then have to hire more career firefighters to make up the difference.
Volunteers might be asked to serve in a different community from the one in which they live, the factor which they think would deplete their numbers.
Supporters of the bill believe that the county will still produce people who are willing to volunteer.
“The volunteer leadership has historically stated that the proposed legislation will be the end of our volunteers,” said Raymond Sanchez of the Montgomery County Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Fire Fighters.
“We also think it would be expensive,” said John Horvat of the Community Fire Rescue Chief Officers Association. They estimate the cost in additional personnel and equipment to be between $20-50 million.
Shifting equipment, much of it owned by the volunteers, was another of their main objections. The administrator would be able to seize equipment and move it to another station. “The fire administrator could move equipment as he or she saw fit,” Horvat said.
Many stated that since equipment has been largely purchased by members of one town, it would be unfair to shift that equipment to a different town.
“Equipment can be transferred today,” pointed out Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large).
Volunteers say that the bill was developed in a secretive fashion.
“How did we come to this point without any consultations or negotiations?” said Jim Seavey, Chief of Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, the department which serves most of Potomac.
Knapp asserts that he spoke to volunteers. “The effort was made to speak to as many people as practicable,” Knapp said. Volunteers have said that none of them were consulted.
They also point out that a measure similar to this bill was defeated in a countywide referendum in 1996. “The only difference now today is that we’ve tacked the words ‘homeland security’ to the bill,” said Marcine Goodloe of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary.