Manassas sets structure for fire department

By Jennifer Buske
Thursday, January 28, 2010

A fire and rescue system that operates under one citywide chief yet allows the two volunteer organizations in Manassas to have some control over policies and procedures is on the horizon after a vote by the City Council on Monday.

The ordinance unanimously approved by council members outlines the structure of the Fire and Rescue Department, which was formed in 2008 but lacks a clear hierarchy because of disputes between volunteer and career emergency responders and a lack of action by city officials. The ordinance includes a new amendment that gives final say on policies and procedures to a committee rather than the chief, a concession to the volunteers.

"This is a radical change, and it takes time to build consensus," Vice Mayor Andrew L. Harrover (R) said. "As a council, we wanted to demonstrate our commitment to the public safety community. Does that mean everybody is happy? No . . . but we heard from everyone, and though it took longer than we liked, I think we have a workable solution."

The unified department includes the career staff of the Manassas Fire and Rescue Department as well as the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company and the Greater Manassas Volunteer Rescue Squad. The ordinance requires that the three organizations coordinate policies but preserves some traditions at the volunteer companies.

Under the ordinance, Fire Chief Michael L. Wood has operational control over the system and maintains control at the site of an incident. Wood and the two volunteer chiefs will draft policies and operating procedures and propose equipment purchases. Wood does not have the authority to make any decision final, a change from previous ordinance drafts.

Instead, a Public Safety Committee will vote on all policies, procedures and equipment purchases. The committee, which will comprise four volunteers, two career staff members and a nonvoting council member, will be given more than a month to make a decision, except in emergencies, when Wood would act.

"I'm surprised we shifted to a committee-based structure when a hybrid model had been endorsed for so many months," Wood said, referring to previous incarnations in which he would have made decisions with guidance from the committee. "But the reality is the council has done what they believe is best. We are obligated to support it, and we will."

Wood, or committee members who disagree with a decision, can appeal to a five-member group, which will consist of the city manager and four residents who have fire and rescue experience.

Although Manassas officials had talked about modeling the department on Prince William County's, Wood said there are several differences.

The county has a similar decision-making committee, for example, but career staff members outnumber the volunteers. And appeals go to the county executive rather than a committee.

Wood said he is concerned that under the model adopted that it could take months to get any policy or procedure adopted, especially if it goes through the appeals committee. Volunteers, however, were generally happy with council's vote.

"The volunteers do believe that the council is taking the right approach," John Foote, the attorney for the volunteer fire department, said in an e-mail. "This is, in the views of both the volunteer fire and I am told, the volunteer rescue companies, the fair way to handle it."

The change in decision-making power came after volunteer officials expressed concern. Not allowing them to have a substantive role in the department could jeopardize the future of the volunteer system, they said.

"It comes down to: Are the volunteers your partners in this system or not?" Harrover said. "If they are, they deserve a voice, and I think the council decided they are."

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