The latest in a long series of studies on firefighting services in Montgomery County has sparked criticism of the independent county fire department and debate over the differences in how paid firefighters and volunteers are trained.
"The system is a monster," said Fire Marshal James Dalton, in an interview. Dalton helped draft and signed a report that detailed 60 counts of problems and solutions. The report, signed by about 30 career firefighters, was prepared for a task force appointed by County Executive James P. Gleason. The study group was formed after wide publicity was given to firefighters' dissatisfaction with the system.
The task force is looking into personal procedures, equipment handing and distribution, and enforcement of fire regulations among the departments. The group is chaired by Warren Isman, head of the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, a liaison organization between the county government and the Fire Board, which runs the departments.
Task force members will hear opinions from firefighters and civic associations, and make a recommendation to Gleason in late May. An aide to the county executive said Gleason would not comment "until all the critiques come in."
Fire officials would not discuss details of the report but Dalton outlined what he said are some of the inadequacies of the firefighting system.
"There are 16 independent fire departments. They are autonomous and they act independently," said Dalton, in discussing what he considers inadequacies of the firefighting system. Although there is a Fire Board which set rules for firefighting, procedures for running the departments differ throughout the county, he said.
"In some departments there may be an overabundance of equipment. In other departments, there are no hook-and-ladder trucks. Equipment should be carefully located," the fire marshal said. "In some stations there are always people to man the operations immediately. In others, there may not be someone in the station when a call comes. When people are alert they then have to go to the station and get on the truck and go out to a call."
Each department submits a separate request for funds to the county each year. Dalton said he believes that the allocations made to localities should be more closely examined than they are now.
Each fire department has a different chief, and that contributes to differences in operations, he said.
"There are some old chiefs whose training is not equal to the job," said Dalton, a career firefighter since 1960.
"There is no central system," he continued. "The management is different, the attitudes of the people are different. They're supposed to be equal. But the person who lives in one area paying the same taxes as anyone else in the county may be getting services different from what another person in another area is getting."
Many volunteer firefighters "are every bit as proficient as career personnel," he said. "But overall it's hard to compare the two groups."
For one thing, volunteers are required to take only one basic firefighting course, while career people must take two courses, said the fire marshal.
Both volunteers and career firefighters can rise to the same officer ranks. Volunteers number 850 in the county, and paid people number 668, Isman said. Montgomery County fire services once were run entirely by volunteers, but paid firefighters were hired when volunteers became scarce during daytime hours.
Fire Board head Marvin Gibbons would not comment on the report, but he said that "Montgomery County has high training standards."