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Just One More Thing

Committee deals with bill to change county’s fire service.

Just one question remained. “What is the definition of operational policy and operational authority?” said County Councilmember Mike Knapp (D-2).

The Council’s Public Safety Committee had already worked through the other issues they felt were important to Bill 36-03 at previous worksessions. The March 8 worksession was intended to pin down the last questions before a scheduled March 18 session to discuss final language in the bill before it is submitted to the full Council.

Most of Potomac’s Fire and Rescue services are provided by Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department. The department owns the buildings on River Road, and on Falls Road, and most of the equipment that is used by the firefighters.

The department has a volunteer chief, Jim Seavey, and an active volunteer presence, although many of the firefighters who work out of the stations are career firefighters.

The bill was introduced in October by Knapp and is co-sponsored by councilmembers Michael Subin (D-At Large) and George Leventhal (D-At Large).

If adopted as written, the county will shift decision-making power with regard to the fire service from the Fire Rescue Commission to the fire administrator.

Operational authority will be vested in the chief of the career firefighters while administrative authority would be given to the chief of the volunteer firefighters.

Under its current organizational structure, the chiefs of the 19 volunteer fire departments are autonomous and the chief of the career firefighters is of an equivalent rank to each of them. The bill would re-align the service, making the career chief head over each of the various departments.

The bill also increases the rewards for volunteers, such as death benefits, and a program which is essentially a pension for long-serving volunteers.

Supporters of the bill have said it is necessary to have a single, accountable chief who makes decisions for the service in order to streamline response to large-scale disasters.

Opponents say that by removing the power from the Fire Rescue Commission, they remove the community’s voice from the decision making process, and that the changes will ultimately result in less volunteer firefighters.

AT THE WORKSESSION, the committee heard from several stakeholders in the process about the issue of operational authority. The definition is important since the bill would give operational authority to one person.

Gordon Aoyagi, the fire administrator, defined operational authority in broad terms. Aoyagi said it was not just a case of who was in command on the scene, but also who was in charge of training standards and evaluation.

He advocated for a definition which would allow the fire service to “apply standard practices to standard conditions to achieve standard outcomes.”

Mike Weiner, chief of the Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Department was there as spokesperson for the volunteer fire chiefs. The volunteers have generally been critical of the bill.

Weiner took a narrower approach and defined operational authority as just being in command on-scene. He said that the time spent before a call comes in is better classified as administrative. “[Administrative authority] gets us to the point where we can respond,” Weiner said. Operational authority, he stated, was only an issue when responding.

“I don’t believe that in the fire service, you can draw that distinction,” Aoyagi said. Ensuring that firefighters are able to respond is also considered operational, he said.

The other three speakers, all representing career firefighters, largely agreed with Aoyagi and disagreed with Weiner.

Using Aoyagi’s definition of operational authority would vest power in the chief of the career firefighters, if the bill passes as written. Weiner’s definition would allow the volunteer chief to be in charge of many aspects of the day-to-day operations of the fire service.

The committee members did not discuss the issue. The bill may be presented to the County Council as early as the end of this month or the beginning of April. The Council may take action on the bill next month.