All the debates surrounding a bill which could change the way the county operates the fire and rescue service end up coming back to one question.
“What do you think will be the long-run effects of this on volunteer participation in the County,” said Councilmember Phil Andrews (D-3) at a April 1 meeting discussing amendments to the bill. “That’s my greatest concern.”
Currently, the county operates under a hybrid system of volunteer and career firefighters. In Potomac, the building and equipment at Cabin John Station are largely owned by the volunteer corporations. The staffing is a combination of volunteers and career firefighters, and the chief, Jim Seavey, is a volunteer.
Other stations in the county operate in a similar fashion with varying degrees of volunteer participation. Three stations are operated entirely by career personnel.
Each of the volunteer chiefs has an equal level of authority as the single career chief. The bill, 36-03, was proposed by Councilmember Mike Knapp (D-2). Knapp says that the fire service needs a single person to make the decisions, instead of the current decentralized model.
If the bill passes, the volunteer chiefs will become subordinate to this single chief. Volunteers say that by doing this, their role will be reduced, and that it will remove motivation for people to volunteer. “It directly takes away volunteer leaders,” said Ray Whelan of the Community Volunteer Fire Rescue Association. “Once the leaders are gone, the volunteers will be gone.”
Supporters of the bill disagree. John Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association, drew a parallel to a time when Prince George’s County underwent a similar restructuring.
The volunteers continued to come and ride on the engines and serve their community, Sparks said. “All the doom and gloom that we were told about never happened.”
The amended bill differs in the person who will assume ultimate authority, but not that it will be one person. In the initial draft, the Fire Administrator, a non-uniformed individual would be placed in charge of the fire service. He would have been served by the head of the career firefighters who would have had operational authority, and the head of the volunteers who would have had administrative authority.
The new bill does away with the fire administrator, and has a Fire Chief, appointed by the County Executive and confirmed by the council, act as head of the department and assume full operational and administrative authority.
The chief will have two deputy chiefs, also appointed and confirmed, one for operations and the other for volunteer services. It is up to the chief to assign responsibilities to each of the deputies.
As it is currently written, the volunteer head must have experience as a chief, assistant or deputy chief in the county.
Fire Administrator Gordon Aoyagi, questioned the provision that the volunteer head must come from within the county. “You may not get the perspective or change agent,” Aoyagi said.
Councilmember Michael Subin (D-At Large), however, rejected Aoyagi’s point. “I think it is a horrible mistake,” he said. “To bypass the folks who have paid their dues here for however many years will be somewhat demoralizing to a lot of people.”