Fire Chief Made His Work His Home, Too

Volunteer Fire Chief Robert Bird, left; his wife, Wanda, also a firefighter; and John McCarty Sr., president of the Gainesville District Volunteer Fire Department. The County Board says the department will be dissolved.
Volunteer Fire Chief Robert Bird, left; his wife, Wanda, also a firefighter; and John McCarty Sr., president of the Gainesville District Volunteer Fire Department. The County Board says the department will be dissolved. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Gainesville house has everything Robert Bird's family needs: a kitchen outfitted with enough space to seat 16 guests, a weight room and an airy family room with a 50-inch flat screen television. And it has a few things it probably doesn't, most notably 26 beds, a medic unit, and the hook and ladder in the garage.

When Prince William County supervisors found out that Bird, the volunteer fire chief, had turned the station into his family home, they sounded alarms. Yesterday, the Board of County Supervisors called it grounds to dissolve the Gainesville District Volunteer Fire Department.

"There is a difference between sleeping in the station and living in the station," county board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said.

The unorthodox housing arrangement has been reality for the Birds, and the department, for as long as any of the firefighters interviewed could remember. Bird joined the department in 1957, and at some point -- no one can say exactly when -- he moved in with his wife, Wanda, and their autistic daughter, Katie, who is now 19.

"It got to where we were staying there every night because we didn't want the station to fail," said Wanda Bird, who served as the department's rescue chief. Katie, who spends most nights in the women's bunk room and has learned to sleep through most fire alarms, is "happy, comfortable and safe" at the station, Wanda Bird said.

"She doesn't go all out and about. She is very to herself," Bird said. "I talked to career staffers, and they said they don't have a problem with it."

Although firefighters didn't mind, county officials yesterday called the living situation untenable.

Supervisors first learned that the Bird family was camping out in the women's dormitory at the station when two ousted volunteers brought it to their attention. That led to a four-month internal audit. The audit found records in disarray and an operation that appeared to disregard county staffing and safety requirements.

"We concluded that the overall system of internal controls is unsatisfactory," said auditor Robin Howard, adding that the department did not cooperate with the review.

Although no fraud or malfeasance was uncovered, Howard said they would have been difficult to detect based on the paperwork provided.

Management of the department was transferred to the county. Career firefighters will staff the two stations in the area without interruption.

"There are numerous unresolved risks, some identified and others unknown," Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin McGee said, citing the Gainesville department's lack of training, certification and spending controls.


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