The Fairfax City Countil voted this week to reorganize the fueding fire department by placing volunteer chief Charles Seay in command of the city's 37 paid and 74 volunteer firefighters.
The 4-3 vote came at a meeting Tuesday night that was as heated as the issue which prompted it. During debate over amendments to the ordinances and administrative regulation enacting the reorganization, council members continually sniped at one another.
Council member John Perrin championed the volunteer cause, while Council member Carl J. Hemmer argued for a department led by a paid chief. At one point, Perrin accused Hemmer of "gratuitous editorializing."
Hemmer, in a written statement released before the vote, conceded defeat for his side but said the majority decision failed to rememdy the problems within the fire department and warned that "a future council will have to face the issues this council avoided."
Before the decision Tuesday night, Joseph R. Gebaur, head of the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, was in charge of day-to-day station operations and Seay was in charge at the scene of fires. Seay now will have ultimate authority over fire department policy.
The dispute between the paid and volunteer firefighters began in May 1978 when City Manager George Hubler, with the City Council's approval organized a paid Department of Fire and Rescue Services to augment the 52-year-old volunteer force.
The paid force was needed, argued Hubler, because the city recently had terminated a mutual protection contract with Fairfax County. But the volunteers interpreted the move differently. They accused Hubler of trying to "run us out of town."
Some paid firefighters viewed the resistance by the volunteers as a threat to their jobs. During recent hearings, members of the paid force have complained about taking orders from an "unqualified volunteer chief."
Relations between the two factions reached their worst point last summer when volunteers accused the paid firefighters of putting fishhooks in their coat pockets and scrawling obscenities on their helmets.
Current relations had been described by members on both sides as "an uneasy peace." But the City Council was concerned that volunteer participation had dropped "significantly" since the summer.
Council member Glenn White worried at a hearing last month that if the council voted to give control of the fire department to a paid chief, "we can kiss the volunteers goodbye."
Mayor Frederick W. Silverthorne said the city could not afford a fire department without substantial volunteerf participation, particularly because the volunteers own one of the city's two fire stations and all of the firefighting equipment.
"If we had to duplicate what the volunteers offer us for nothing, the capital cost alone would amount to $1.5 million," said Silverthorne.
During public hearings, the council majority was accused by citizens of submitting to "appeasement on a grand scale" and of being "bullied by a few vocal firemen and the fear of a tax increase."
"The invective has been stronger in this issue than anything else in the past, and I regret it," said Council member Perrin, who then approached Hemmer at Tuesday night's meeting, took him by the elbow and said, "Let's bury the hatchet, but not in my back."