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Prince William Weighs Central Control of Firefighting

The approximately 2,000 paid and volunteer firefighters in Prince William County may end up working for one organization -- and one chief.

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By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

Prince William County is seeking to upend generations of tradition by centralizing control of the fire department under a single countywide chief and eliminating a system that gave wide latitude to volunteer departments on matters of training, finances and scheduling.

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Some believe the contentious move is a long-overdue nod to the changing makeup of the county, which has been transformed from a collection of sleepy rural hamlets into a sprawling bedroom community. Others believe the change could help kill off an American institution that dates back to Benjamin Franklin.

Volunteer fire departments across the country have faced the challenge of trying to cover increasingly dense communities with time-strapped members whose ranks have been in steady decline. Many volunteer companies that once thrived in rural areas around the Washington region have been subsumed by career departments that offer consistent training regimens, financial oversight and stable staffing.

Over the years, departments in Montgomery and Fairfax counties have adopted combination systems that give greater control to a single, salaried fire chief. Prince William appears poised to join them.

"We have to be able to adapt to the changing conditions around us," said Kevin McGee, Prince William's career fire chief, who is part of a six-member committee that is examining whether the county should reorganize the department. McGee said he has a responsibility "to operate a system, not a group of individual entities that have wide discretion to create their own standards and service levels."

For generations, volunteer firefighters have operated largely with autonomy in Prince William. McGee oversees the county's 500 paid firefighters, and 12 volunteer fire chiefs oversee 1,500 unpaid firefighters, manage their station houses and staff them on nights, weekends and holidays.

But last year, unsettling signs began to surface suggesting that the system no longer suited a burgeoning, 348-square-mile county whose population has swelled to nearly 400,000.

The Board of County Supervisors initiated an audit when members learned that Robert Bird, the volunteer fire chief in Gainesville, had quietly turned the station into his family home. Bird, his wife and their 19-year-old daughter set up a permanent residence in the women's bunk room.

Robin Howard, the county's auditor, determined that the volunteer department had disregarded county staffing and safety requirements. He said what took place in Gainesville could be happening elsewhere, because the county lacks direct oversight over the volunteer companies.

"The system as a whole is not functional," Howard said. "Uniformity and consistency is the only protection the county has. Yet the county has established a culture where individual companies make their own decisions."

In January, the supervisors unanimously agreed to dissolve the Gainesville Volunteer Fire Department. Management of the department was transferred to the county.

Dave Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said the kind of overhaul being considered could have unintended consequences. Running volunteer stations like career departments, he said, "erodes the whole culture of the volunteer fire system."

"It's a loss of control, and when volunteers don't have autonomy over their own operation, they tend to become marginalized," he said. "When you are risking your own life, yet don't feel appreciated, [you] say, 'To hell with it.' "

Volunteers still make up 72 percent of firefighters across the country, according to a 2007 study by the National Fire Protection Association. But nationwide, their ranks have declined by 8 percent since 1984. And in this era of two-income households, hour-long commutes and competing demands for time, fewer volunteers are available to handle the intensive demands and inherent dangers of fighting fires.

Although Prince William has taken steps to improve service and morale damaged by turf battles, the county has never addressed the hierarchy.

In 1988, a seven-month county study recommended a "major reorganization of fire and rescue services." Six years later, another study by an independent auditor said "the current structure creates impossible expectations." Yet volunteer rescue response times continued to get worse.

Just before dawn on Christmas morning in 1998, a fire killed six people, including four children, making it the county's deadliest. After a gas water heater ignited the Dale City townhouse, thick smoke filled it in a matter of minutes. Neighbors frantically called 911, but the nearest volunteer station was shorthanded. For six minutes, a firetruck sat in the station as a crew waited for a volunteer who had overslept. Another firehouse sent help to the scene, arriving in four minutes.

Although county officials maintained that no lives would have been saved if the closer station had been ready to respond, the labor union that represents the county's paid firefighters said residents should not be subject to a game of chance.

Prince William began to add more paid personnel to its mix of firefighters after the blaze, but the transition has been painful because of the added budget demands.

A dozen volunteers spent a recent Saturday morning learning how to operate a Stokes basket -- a stretcher-like apparatus used to evacuate a person in a confined space.

A 200-pound training dummy sat at the bottom of a 16-foot slope, awaiting rescue. Six men made their way to it, lifted it into the basket, strapped it in and carried it to safety by sliding it up a ladder. The volunteers repeated the maneuver a good dozen times.

Volunteers undergo 225 hours of training, give up their nights and weekends and spend a Saturday morning learning a rescue method they might never use. Andrew Frizzle followed his older brother, Norman, into the volunteer ranks 21 years ago. Frizzle laments that the volunteer service is under threat.

"Anywhere it's happened, there's generally a significant decrease in volunteers," Frizzle said of counties adopting the structure being considered in Prince William. County officials "would never say, 'We're doing away with volunteers,' but in actuality, it would be difficult to maintain the volunteer structure. Before long, they will find the volunteers are gone."

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