A Montgomery County Fire Service Task Force reported last week that the quality of the county's firefighting services is uneven and varies from one part of the county to another, posing "not an immediate threat to the public safety" but opening the way for "serious deterioration in the future."
The task force said it found inadequately staffed fire stations, too little equipment in some stations and too much in others and that "response times by some departments are not reliable enough." The quality of service varies so much, according to the task force, that some taxpayers are not getting what they pay for.
The report was presented to County Executive James P. Gleason, who called the recommendations "very commendable" and said they were "a necessary step forward as we move into larger, more complicated areas of firefighting. I still think we have the best fire service in the metropolitan area. And our insurance rates have gone down."
Gleason organized the six-member task force two months ago in the wake of criticism and publicity about dissatisfaction and low morale among firefighters. The task force, made up of firefighters, fire administrators and county government officials, was headed by Warren Isman, chief of the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, a support organization for the fire departments.
Approximately half of the countys firefighters are volunteers, half are paid career employes.
Disparities among the 16 fire departments and two rescue squads, cited by the report, included these: Volunteers and career firefighters are not required to have the same levels of training; procedures for wearing and purchasing uniforms vary as do rules of personal conduct, and physical examination requirements are all different depending on the department.
There are no available manuals of regulations, the task force added. Regulations made by the county Fire Board are often ignored or changed by individual departments, and standards for volunteer officers differ within departments, the report said.
"Each department selects, promotes or appoints its officers according to its own standards," wrote the task force."(Some) departments have no standards whatsoever, but elect, appoint etc., according to popularity or individual judgment."
In general, inservice training for volunteers ranges from "mostly none to minimal," the report said; for paid career firefighters, it ranges from "excellent to mostly minimal to non-existent." Some departments do not enfore the basic minimal training standards required by the Fire Board, the report said.
The report added, "Some departments allow cadet or junior members to man apparatus and perform hazardous operational duties on actual fire and rescue incidents." Cadet and junior members are usually 16 or 17 years old. The report suggested that standards be adopted to ensure that the duties of cadets match their capabilities.
When training procedures differ, different departments work less effectively together on the same fire, according to the report. "This reduces the confidence of each department in the abilities of other departments and justifies to them the need to provide all necessary services themselves which magnifies the duplication of service problems."
The task force said the problems stem from the lack of a central authority to make policy and enforce it among the 16 different departments and two rescue squads. "There are significant differences in philosophy, priorities, resources and capabilities," said the report.
Task force recommendations include:
Setting the response time for the lower county area, where firefighting problems are more difficult, at two minutes. If a department does not respond within two minutes, a second department is dispatched.
Setting training standards for career and volunteer fighters that must be met but within different periods of time.
Setting up a central purchasing agency for the use of all county departments when they need equipment.
Putting fire equipment, not in use, in a reserve fleet.
Writing training manuals for all firefighters to follow.
The task force also recommended giving the Fire Board and the Fire Board's executive committee more responsibility for regulating the departments and more authority and staff to enforce their regulations. The Fire Board is composed of two representatives from each of the 18 departments.
In addition, the director of the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, a support organization for the Fire Board, should be given the power to oversee day-to-day operations of the fire departments, the report said. This would include assigning personnel to stations that are low on manpower. The director is Warren Isman, who also was head of the task force.
If the recommendation is followed, this would be the closest the county has ever come to having a county fire chief, one person in charge of all fire activities. "At some point in the future - four or five years down the road - we probably will have a county fire chief," said Gleason.
Some firefighters say they want autonomous departments with no central control and some firefighters want strong central control.
"The problem is conceptualization," said Thomas Finnin, the head of the county career firefighters' association. "Career people feel there should be fulltime career management people for the whole county (fire services)."
Finnin reiterated the report's findings on variations in standards for departments. "Sometimes a man with six, eight, 10 years of service may find himself taking orders from a man who's been in for half the time and has much less experience. Sometimes, (choosing officers) is just a matter of cliques and popularity contests."
Hunter Heltzel, the volunteer fire chief of the Silver Spring department, said the report had "identified the problems" in the fire services, but he added, "I don't know if (the report) will make anyone really happy. It will take some authority away from volunteers."
Heltzel said his Silver Spring department already followed the regulations set by the Fire Board, already purchased apparatus through county channels and "tried to give good positions to career firefighters and good positions to volunteers."
But many of the volunteer-run departments will protest a strong central authority, said Heltzel.
Gleason will request comments from firefighters, both career and volunteer, and the Fire Board before he introduces legislation aimed at strengthening the Fire Board and its executive committee.