Manassas names interim fire and rescue chief

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011

A former Prince William County fire official will lead the Manassas Fire and Rescue Department until a permanent replacement can be found for the city's first fire chief, Michael L. Wood, who recently resigned amid turmoil in the agency.

Dale McCleese, a retired fire and rescue battalion chief from Prince William, will lead the department for about four months while Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes conducts a nationwide search for a chief, city officials said Tuesday.

"Chief McCleese has just the right balance of leadership and experience to work with our fire and rescue personnel and our volunteer and regional partners," Hughes said.

Hughes said he reached out to neighboring fire and rescue organizations and received some inquiries on the interim position. McCleese was a good fit, he said, because he is familiar with many of the staff members and comes from a department where volunteer and career fire and rescue personnel work side-by-side.

"I think the chief resigned here pretty suddenly . . . and when the situation was explained to me, I was interested in trying to help stabilize the department," said McCleese, who started Monday. "I'm coming in as a neutral player and . . . with my background, I think I can help."

Hughes also appointed Wade House, a former chief and president of the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company, as interim assistant fire and rescue chief because of the departures of two other longtime fire and rescue officials. After decades serving the city, Manassas Fire Capt. Michael Rohs and Capt. Leon Buckley announced their retirements a few weeks ago.

"With the top three people leaving all at once, I thought we needed someone else to help make the transition go smoothly," Hughes said. "Always when you have a change this dramatic, it's a matter of concern, but I think we have found some people to serve in the interim who will work hard to maintain [service] and the stations."

McCleese, of Stafford County, spent 32 years with the Prince William department. He said his experience working in the county's combined volunteer and career fire and rescue system will help in his temporary position. He said getting all the Manassas volunteer and career staff members to communicate will be key in helping the department.

McCleese said that he is not planning on staying after his stint is up but that he is ready to make a difference in the interim.

"I think I need to work with people day in and day out and see where it takes me in the next four months," he said. "Hopefully, I can help out the newly elected chief - whoever that may be - make the transition."

Wood was hired two years ago after city officials decided to upend tradition and create a city department. The City Council passed an ordinance in January that gave Wood control of day-to-day operations but not final say on policies and procedures. Instead, a public safety committee with four volunteers, two career staff members and a nonvoting council member decides on policies.

In mid-December, Wood announced that he would resign by year's end because of various issues with the department, including a dispute between some volunteer and career members who continue to disagree on the future of the city's fire and rescue system.

Some city and fire and rescue officials have said they were not surprised by Wood's departure, because they have seen the struggles he has gone through to unite the three organizations. Some volunteer fire officials, however, have said they were caught off-guard by his resignation.

"I wasn't surprised with Chief Wood's decision," Manassas City Council member Jonathan L. Way (R) said, noting that he doesn't think public safety will be affected. "He had an extremely difficult challenge to blend [the departments], and he was not satisfied with the progress. It is going to continue to be a serious challenge for us."

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

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