At 7 a.m. on June 8, Peter West began a 24-hour shift as a battalion chief in the Fairfax County Fire Department, in overall command of five stations, 50 firefighters and more than a dozen pieces of equipment that protect a 150-square-mile area covering Chantilly, Centreville, Clifton and Fair Oaks.
There's not much unusual about that, but as recently as three years ago, the scene would have been very different for the 30-year, veteran volunteer firefighter.
Like other jurisdictions with combined fire services, Fairfax County's department was fraught with animosity and mistrust. Professionals felt volunteers were unreliable, and volunteers felt professionals were forcing them out of jobs that had been theirs for decades.
"The situation had deteriorated so much around here from the volunteers' point of view . . . . We didn't know if they wanted our help or not. Everybody seemed to say 'who cares' and a lot of volunteers lost interest," said West, a project manager for TRW Inc.
The county reached a crossroads in 1983, when the nine-member Board of Supervisors voted to adopt a series of sweeping reforms designed to create a "unified" fire service in which well-trained volunteers would hold the same status as the county's professional firefighters.
Since then, fire officials say, the department has undergone a startling turnaround. Much of the animosity and mistrust has been eliminated. The volunteer ranks, once thinned by declining interest, are starting to rise again. And, most important of all, fire officials say the changes are leading to better fire protection at far less cost to Fairfax County taxpayers.
"This is the greatest thing in the world for me," said Gerry Strider, president of the Baileys Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department. "Today's volunteer has the opportunity to go as high as he or she has time for."
"I've been pleased, other members have been very pleased," said Board of Supervisors member Joseph Alexander, who chairs the board's fire subcommittee. "We don't hear a lot of gripes and complaints at all. It seems to be working very well."
"The volunteers know what to expect and what's expected of them. The same goes for career personnel," said Lt. Leonard S. Murry, a department spokesman.
Twelve of the county's 30 fire stations are still operated by private, nonprofit volunteer companies, which own about $20 million in buildings and equipment that have been purchased over the years without cost to taxpayers.
The estimated 250 active volunteers supplement 900 career professionals and provide about $7 million a year in free labor, according to volunteer fire officials.
The key to the renaissance in relations between the two firefighting branches has been better training, the integration of volunteers into the department's chain of command and a commitment from top officials to include volunteers in department policy decisions, officials say.
Those steps and others recommended in a consultant's study were adopted by the Board of Supervisors in March 1983. "We wanted to preserve volunteer spirit and participation and at the same time we wanted a professional service. We wanted the paid members to have confidence that the volunteers were qualified to do the job," Alexander said.
In July 1983, the county hired Warren E. Isman as chief of fire and rescue services to carry out the changes. Isman had previously served in Montgomery County where friction between volunteers and professionals had been a problem for years.
"Chief Isman brought with him philosophically an attitude that supports a combination fire department. From the top management perspective, that kind of set the stage [for changes]," said Tom Owens, who was hired last year to serve as a liaison between the chief and the volunteers.
"To begin this marriage between the paid and volunteer services, he made a commitment that they would have input into management decisions," said Owens. "That commitment, opening a line of communication, was probably the first giant step in bringing the two departments together."
Isman reorganized the county's Volunteer Fire Commission and charged it with the task of developing a volunteer recruitment program, a retirement system for volunteers and a set of new training standards that would bring volunteers up to par with career firefighters.
Next, the department and the volunteer chiefs sat down and developed a formal chain of command. "Every volunteer officer is built in at the appropriate level," said Owens. "It goes from the county fire chief right on down the structure."
Volunteers now conduct regular recruitment drives, and a year ago started a cadet program for 16- and 17-year-olds. They also are developing a media program for area high schools.
Under a training program volunteers developed, recruits are certified according to standards approved by the National Fire Protection Association.
New volunteers start with 20 hours of indoctrination to get familiar with station operations. Then, they must take 60 hours of training at the county fire academy to qualify as a Fire Fighter I.
To advance to Fire Fighter II and III ranks, they must take 81 hours of emergency medical training, which includes time in a hospital emergency room, and 60 hours of additional fire training. From there, they can specialize in such fields as emergency medical service, or they can undergo even more training to become an officer.
After that, volunteers must take 48 hours of refresher training each year and spend a minimum of 20 hours a month on duty, the equivalent of about one night a week.
"By emphasizing training, we got rid of those issues that cause friction between paid and volunteers. They trust us," said West, one of four volunteer battalion chiefs.
The county staffs each piece of equipment at minimum levels with career firefighters. But volunteers who are certified can serve in any county station to supplement paid staff or can fill vacancies caused by illness or vacation.
As a result, on a given fire scene a volunteer may actually command both career and volunteer firefighters.
"Once you're on the scene of a fire, someone in a burning building can't distinguish a patch on one's shoulder," said Owens. "That's the way it should be all the time."