Manassas Fire Chief Michael Wood to resign

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 11:57 PM

Manassas's first fire chief, Michael L. Wood, will resign at year's end amid turmoil in a department in which some volunteer and career members continue to dispute the future of the organization he was hired to lead two years ago.

"I really think the structure here is inefficient and predisposes our personnel and community to unnecessary risks," Wood said. "I've attempted for greater than two years to try and remedy those deficiencies, but unfortunately there is a strong desire to fight change."

Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes said he will conduct a nationwide search for a new chief. Because it will take at least three to four months, Hughes said, he will appoint an interim chief "in the near future."

Wood, 49, said he is not leaving for another job, but instead because of the situation in which he finds himself. There is still no strategic plan for the fire and rescue system, which includes paid staff as well as the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company and the Greater Manassas Volunteer Rescue Squad, because of pushback from some volunteers, Wood said. He noted he has had a good relationship with the volunteer rescue squad. The volunteer fire company has tried to maintain a measure of independence, for fear it could lose its identity.

Wood also said the structure of the system gives him responsibility and liability but no mechanism to influence or manage change.

"He had a lot of responsibility for what went wrong but no authority to fix it," said Mike Enright, president of the volunteer rescue company. "I was surprised by his resignation, but I had a fear that this may come because of the lack of cooperation" by the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company.

Manassas Volunteer Fire Chief Matt Lausch said he was caught off guard by Wood's resignation. He said the volunteer fire staff has always "attempted to work" with Wood and embraced the career staff at the volunteer fire house.

But council member Jonathan L. Way (R) said he was not surprised by Wood's action.

"He had an extremely difficult challenge to blend [the departments], and he was not satisfied with the progress," Way said. "And it is going to continue to be a serious challenge for us."

Fire Capt. Michael Rohs and Enright said Wood has been instrumental in making numerous advances for the department. He has secured grants, strengthened relationships with other fire and rescue systems in Northern Virginia and gotten mobile data systems in all the vehicles, they said.

Both said they worry that his departure could hurt public safety services in Manassas.

"Trucks will still get out on the road and calls will be answered, but it could be a lot better; citizens deserve a whole lot better," Rohs said. "We're a small city, but we have a major airport and railway system. The potential is here for something to happen. Are we prepared? To an extent, but we can be better prepared."

Mayor Harry J. "Hal" Parrish II (R) said the volunteer and career personnel are all professionals and will continue to provide "the best service possible" to residents. He said that placing blame for why Wood is leaving would not help matters.

"It doesn't do any good now to throw stones; what does do good is looking toward the future," Parrish said. "I hated to see Chief Wood make this decision, but he has, and the city needs to look toward the future and providing quality service to our citizens."

Wood was hired after city officials upended tradition and created a city department. Because of the ongoing dispute between some volunteers and Wood, the council stepped in, passing an ordinance in January that gave Wood control of day-to-day operations but not the final say on policies and procedures. Instead, a public safety committee with four volunteers, two career staff members and a nonvoting council member votes on policies.

"Since the inception of the city ordinance, the volunteer fire company has always worked within the format and structure the city created, and that structure consists of all three entities and a committee, not a dictatorship," Lausch said, noting he doesn't believe service will be affected by Wood's departure. "If there is an individual who feels they have the ultimate authority, that's not what the city created."

The Virginia Department of Fire Programs is conducting an assessment of the department.

"I wish the city, the career and volunteer staff and the citizens the best," Wood said. "When the Virginia Department of Fire Programs delivers its assessment in March, I hope that better articulates the areas that may need to change and that there's a willingness of all the parties to embrace that change and move forward."

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