Montgomery County Executive James P. Gleason said yesterday he is working on a plan to centralize and tighten control over the county's 16 independent fire departments, which have long resisted centralization attempts.
Gleason's move follows a task force study that showed that some five stations are under equipped and under staffed and comes amid reports of drinking and partying at some of the stations.
A spokesman for Gleason said the executive will ask the County Council to adopt legislation that would "set up a single body" that would have authority for overall management of each of the county's fire departments and its two rescue squads. At present, each fire station "does pretty much their own thing," according to Warren Isman, chief of the department of Fire and Rescue Services, a support organization for the individual fire departments.
Isman, who headed the task force study, and other fire officials have complained in the past about lack of uniform standards among the departments.
The study pointed out that levels of training vary between the paid and volunteer firefighters and that purchasing procedures and rules for personal conduct vary from station to station.
Gleason said he is also concerned about an incident recently at the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department in which an 18-year-old nude dancer allegedy performed for a group of firefighters in the station's sleeping quarters during a beer party.
George Herbold, president of the Kensington department, said 13 firefighters have been called on for questioning about the incident and that a member of the station's board of directors handed in his resignation after acknowledging he was present during the party.
Last March, a female member of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department was suspended by Rockville Chief Frank Gould Jr. for sexual misconduct has since resigned, according to Gould.
Gleason said his legislation is aimed only at curtailing the "loose centralization" of the county's fire services.
Gleason said the legislation is not yet in its final form. But Charles Maier, Gleason's chief aide, said a draft of the legislation proposes giving the executive committee of the county-wide fire board the power to set and enforce policies at each of the individual stations. At present, the executive committee "has no authority over field operations," Maier said.
Currently, the executive committee consists of seven members elected from the fire board. Two of those members are paid firefighters, the rest are volunteers. Under the proposed legislation, the executive committee would be expanded to include as many as 12 members, Maier said.
Any action aimed at centralizing the county's fire departments has consistently met with opposition from the volunteer firefighters who have fought in the past to keep their automony.
In 1969 the firefighters mobilized in opposition to a referendum question on whether the county government should take complete control of fire services. That question was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin.
Bill Bliss, chairman of the fire board, said that under the executive's proposed legislation, the volunteers "wouldn't have as much control over their own destiny."
The fire board now consists of each fire chief and one delegate from the individual departments. Bliss complained that under Gleason's proposal the individual chiefs, now responsible for day to day operations at each of the fire stations, would become "figureheads."
In the past the volunteer fire departments were mostly self-supporting, but now they depend on a $215 million budget from the county, Isman said.