Professional firefighters take over Burtonsville volunteer station

By Jeremy Arias
The Gazette
Thursday, March 10, 2011

Command of the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Station has been handed over to career fire officials because volunteers repeatedly failed to properly manage the station, leading to repeated claims of theft and public urination, county officials said.

The volunteer firefighters dispute the claims and call the county's action illegal.

On Feb. 24, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Richard R. Bowers put all firefighters at the Burtonsville station under the command of whoever is the senior career fire official at the station at a given time, said Assistant Chief Scott Graham, a fire and rescue service spokesman.

"It's based on Burtonsville's failure to execute a station management agreement, [which has] resulted in numerous serious violations and incidents at that station, including numerous police reports of thefts, numerous occurrences of public urination [and other acts]," Graham said.

Graham said volunteers continually harass career firefighters who are assigned to the station, even urinating on door handles of career firefighters' cars. On Oct. 8, 2009, a woman who spent the night at the fire station after a date with a volunteer urinated in the bed of a career firefighter who was asleep in the bed at the time, Graham said.

Nineteen volunteer and six career firefighters live in the station's dormitories, officials said. Eighty-five other volunteers live off-site but work rotating shifts at the station, said Tami G. Bulla, vice president of the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department.

Even though many of the incidents were investigated and actions were taken - one volunteer was suspended in the Oct. 8 incident - the ongoing nature of offenses prompted Bowers to act, Graham said.

"Some of these incidents have been investigated, and some of them have been dealt with, but they keep occurring," Graham said. "There's a culture of noncompliance."

While the county owns the station building, until Feb. 24, Volunteer Chief Robert E. Ryan was the de-facto commander of the department and oversaw the deployment of personnel to emergency calls. Volunteers will continue to respond to calls and staff the station, and Ryan will answer to a lower-ranking career official under the change, according to Eric N. Bernard, president of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

The Burtonsville department was opened by 18 volunteers in 1947. Volunteer stations were active in the county before a paid career structure was introduced in the mid-1960s, officials said. The two-tier system sparked hostilities and rivalries between paid and volunteer firefighters, including disagreements over how much of the county's resources should go to each service and career officials' assertion that volunteers should be held more accountable to the county.

Bernard said that Burtonsville volunteer officials cooperated fully with the county's investigations into the Oct. 8 incident. The investigation was closed months ago, to Bowers' apparent satisfaction, Bernard said. He also said that many of the county's claims are baseless and were not reported to the volunteer association.

Bernard said that Bowers' action was illegal because personnel matters, such as station management, do not fall under the Integrated Emergency Command Structure, an agreement that establishes the "pecking order" between volunteer and career officials in responding to an emergency. The only time the county's career fire officials can take command over their volunteer counterparts is during an emergency situation, he said.

Graham and Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association President John Sparks - who is the union representative for career firefighters in the county- dismissed Bernard's argument.

"There's no doubt that [Bowers] has the authority to do what he did," Sparks said. "He oversees all aspects of the fire and rescue services and the delivery of such services to the public, [and] we are also thankful that [Bowers] has decided to take this action, because for such a long time now, the working atmosphere at that station has been horrible."

Some career firefighters assigned to Burtonsville have requested transfers, and many others frequently call in sick, Sparks said, citing what he called a "culture of intimidation and harassment" against career firefighters at the station.

Bernard said the volunteer association is discussing the possibility of filing suit against the county to stop the takeover.

"We're exploring all options, meeting with our member departments, volunteer chiefs and presidents to determine the best course of action," he said.

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