The Montgomery County Council unanimously passed a bill May 4 which will restructure the county’s Fire and Rescue Service. Currently, there is one chief of career firefighters, and 19 chiefs of the various volunteer fire departments. There is also a civilian Fire Administrator and a Fire and Rescue Commission. Each of these entities had decision-making authority in some situations.
Most of Potomac is served by Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, stations 10 and 30. The chief of Cabin John, Jim Seavey, is a volunteer in Montgomery County, but holds a career position in the District of Columbia.
As it operates, the fire service is a hybrid system with almost every station, including Cabin John, staffed by both career and volunteer firefighters, and headed by a volunteer chief.
The bill was introduced by Councilmember Mike Knapp (D-2) in October. He sought to streamline the organizational structure of the Fire and Rescue Service. He and supporters of the bill say this is necessary to expedite the decision making process and to have a single accountable figure.
Opponents of the original bill, which included volunteer fire departments, say that the new structure would have removed community input from the decision making process in the fire/rescue service. They also said that volunteers would be driven from the service, which in turn will cost county residents tens of millions of dollars in hiring career staff to fill the shifts which volunteers had been covering.
THE BILL AS PASSED reorders the top of the service’s organizational structure. The position of Fire Administrator has been eliminated. The county will now have a uniformed fire chief for the first time in its history.
In addition to the chief, the bill creates two division chiefs who will report to the fire chief; one of these will be specifically for volunteers. The volunteer-division chief, a paid position, will be chosen by the County Executive and approved by the County Council from a list provided by the volunteers.
Structurally, now the volunteer fire chiefs at the stations will have two people above them in the organization; previously, they had been autonomous, within guidelines for training and procedures established by the County.
The bill had initially relegated the Fire and Rescue Commission to an advisory body and only given it power as an appellate body in some personnel disputes.
An amendment to the bill restored some of the commission’s power, and allowed it to review and approve or disapprove service policies and regulations, which will typically be submitted by the Fire Chief, within 60 days of their introduction.
The bill will also increase the benefits given to volunteers who stay with the service, known as the Length of Service Awards Program.
Equipment which is purchased and owned by volunteer stations will not be moved without the approval of the local department, except in the case of an emergency.
The legislation goes into effect Jan. 1, 2005.