In a report about Montgomery County firefighters yesterday, David Dwyer's title was incorrect. He is chief of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. (Published 7/31/87)
Montgomery County should make sweeping changes in its fire and rescue operation by creating a countywide fire department to oversee the 18 volunteer companies that serve the county's 670,000 residents, according to a report released yesterday by a government committee.
In a controversial finding that drew immediate criticism from volunteer firefighters, the 13-member commission named in May by County Executive Sidney Kramer said the county could deliver better fire and rescue service by changing a decades-old volunteer-led system that is unique in the Washington area.
Montgomery's current system is an unusual hybrid in which 714 professional career firefighters are paid by the county but employed by the volunteer-dominated fire companies, which have some 1,200 volunteers.
Instead of having a central department with a chief, Montgomery has independent companies that control the use of firefighting staff, equipment and policies. Montgomery, which spends $44 million annually on fire and rescue services, is the only county in the region with such a system.
"Our money is not being spent as efficiently as it could be," Kramer said at a news conference to release the report. He said he would submit legislation to the county council to consolidate county control over fire and rescue services. "With accountability comes efficiency," Kramer said, ". . . When you have accountability, you do save money."
Kramer said the current fire-rescue system is inefficient and provides inconsistent service, with variations in procedures and performance among the various companies. He wants a centralized structure, which volunteer companies have vehemently opposed and have defeated in past attempts to revise the system.
The recommended changes -- supported by Kramer -- would create the new position of county fire chief, transfer the professional firefighters to the county payroll, give the county direct control over the deployment of staff and equipment, consolidate the five fire taxing districts into one, and improve the training and recruitment procedures for volunteers.
The legislation faces a close vote on the seven-member council, according to Michael L. Subin, the council vice president. "Based upon past voting patterns regarding volunteer and career firefighting issues, my gut reaction is that legislation consistent with the report will pass." Other members were not available or declined comment because they had not seen the report.
Some volunteers, who are expected to lobby the council vigorously, say county officials just want control and power. "It is absolutely not needed and it's a waste of money," said Capt. David Dwyer of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Volunteer Fire Department. "They need a fire chief in Montgomery County like they need a flood." The 27-year volunteer added the new system would certainly raise taxes.
"I hope it won't go through without a fight," Dwyer said, "I for one will be dragged kicking and screaming down the hallway until this little problem is decided one way or another."
Dwyer acknowledged that the fire system could be improved through centralized purchasing, improved volunteer recruitment and standardized training for firefighters. But those improvements do not necessitate radical changes in the volunteer system, he said.
Volunteers have argued that centralized control by professionals would downgrade their role and discourage volunteerism. Montgomery has already experienced a decline in volunteers, officials said, because urbanization, the growth of two-career families, and lengthy commutes have discouraged the tradition of volunteer firefighting in a rapidly growing county.
Volunteer firefighters believe the county does not really need centralized control over staff and equipment because the volunteer companies, although autonomous, already cooperate with each other, said Ed Gotthardt, president of the county Fire-Rescue Association, which has representatives from each corporation.
The county would own and distribute firefighting equipment as needed, rather than leaving it to volunteer control, under the recommendations in the 41-page report. The county would establish a standardized program for recruiting and training volunteers and would name a coordinator to act as an ombudsman between the county and the volunteers.
This will not be the first time the proposal to set up a county fire department has met opposition. Starting in 1940, the Brookings Institution suggested such reform but it was defeated. In 1967, the council passed legislation to this effect, but it was knocked down in a county referendum, said Robert Kendal, director of the county Office of Management and Budget.
But Kramer said he believes the time is right for change and thinks the newest proposal can be sold to the public.
"Mr. Kramer is very attuned to public sentiment on these things," Kendal said. He added that the volunteers are not as politically powerful as in the past. In last year's election there was a bitter referendum battle between the county's career and volunteer firefighters over who would make the appointments to the Fire and Rescue Commission, which sets policies for the fire companies.
Kramer won that battle by winning the power to make appointments to the commission, a power that previously was held by the county fire board, which consists of fire company officials.
Kendal said he believed the political influence of the volunteers is "markedly diminished."
Dwyer said the proposal would be defeated in a referendum. "They're not going to be able to do it without raising taxes," Gotthardt said.
Whether the new plan would cost more would be played out over the next several years, Kendal said.