Each summer, as the Fourth of July draws near, Fire Chief Victor Esch finds himself on the telephone again with the Potomac Chamber of Commerce, arranging for his volunteer Cabin John Fire Department to perform what Esch considers a vital part of its mission.
He dispatches a fire truck and a crew to fasten small American flags high on dozens of utility poles in Potomac.
"Happily," he said. "We're glad to do it. In fact, some of their flags were stolen, and we replaced them -- with fire company funds. And that's just one example of what I mean by community involvement.
"That's the kind of thing we're going to lose," Esch said with a sigh. "You've heard that old story about getting the cat down out of the tree? That's what we're going to lose. We're going to lose all touch with the people of our community."
The perceived threat that troubles Esch and hundreds of other Montgomery County volunteer firefighters is the county government's legislative push to bring the county's 18 independent, tradition-bound fire and rescue companies under government control.
County Executive Sidney Kramer argues that a growing county of more than 600,000 people needs a more efficient system. The first step of Kramer's plan faces a public hearing on Wednesday.
For example, Montgomery budget chief Robert K. Kendal said, county officials are powerless to shift firefighters and equipment among stations, a potentially dangerous problem as population continues growing in northern and other areas of the county.
"Can I tell people their tax bills will go down as a result of this? No, I can't," Kendal said. "Can I tell people they'll get better service for their dollar? Yes, I can."
The volunteers, though, are bracing to oppose what they consider an unwarranted assault on the fundamental, small-town character of their decades-old system, which is unique among Washington area jurisdictions. The volunteers have hired a prominent Maryland lobbyist, Devin Doolan of Chevy Chase, to press their case before the County Council.
Volunteers assert that the new system would be weighed down by bureaucratic rules and no longer able to offer the neighborly brand of service that has accounted for much public good will. That good will has translated into about $3 million in donations countywide in the past year, Esch said.
The county has an estimated 1,200 volunteers at 16 fire companies and two rescue companies, all of them virtually autonomous. There are about 750 full-time firefighters, who are paid by the county's $40 million appropriation but who are employed by the volunteer-controlled fire companies.
Volunteers contend that Kramer was motivated partly by the desire to reward the full-time firefighters, whose union supported his 1986 election campaign. The firefighters would win collective bargaining rights by becoming county employes under the reorganization. Kramer is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
County officials made similar attempts to gain control of the system in 1967 and 1978, but they failed, in part because of the political opposition mounted by the volunteers.
"The county will always have adequate fire protection; let's be realistic about that," said Victor Trilling, president of the board that oversees the Glen Echo Volunteer Fire Department. "You won't see the personalized community service, though. The little things we do. It rains and people will call up and say, 'Gee, my basement's flooded. Can you help me out?' They know we'll come by and pump it out for them."
"You'll hear, 'There's a bat in my attic!' " Esch said. "Or an elderly woman will call and she'll say, 'My washing machine's making noise. Will you come and look at it?' And you'll say, 'Well, is it smoking?' And she'll say, 'Well, no, but will you come anyway?' Okay, we'll come.
"And when we do," Esch said, "they might give us a check and say, 'Here, I want to make a contribution to your fire department.' We don't ask for it, but that's what'll happen."
As they exist now, most fire and rescue companies own their stations, and each is responsible for a coverage area, while the county pays for and operates a central dispatching system. The county has set training standards for the full-time firefighters and pays their salaries, but it exercises no authority over them once they are hired.
That authority rests with the fire and rescue chiefs, each of whom speaks the final word at his station.
But their power would diminish greatly under Kramer's plan, drawn from recommendations made two months ago by a study commission he appointed in May. The full-timers would officially become county employes. They still would answer to the volunteer chiefs, but the chiefs would answer to county-employed district chiefs, each in charge of more than one company, and each answerable to one top, county-paid chief.
The system is financed by taxpayers in five fire tax districts, and most of those districts encompass more than one fire company. The result, Kendal said, is a "fundamentally unfair" situation in which property owners in one district pay taxes at the same rate, but some rely for help on fire companies with less manpower than others.
With control of the system, Kendal said, county officials could distribute paid firefighters and equipment more equitably.
They also could impose tougher training standards for rank advancement by volunteers, who, under the current system, often gain command positions in company elections, Kendal said.
County officials also would have more control of spending. Kendal said the companies have too much discretion with county money appropriated to help them meet operating costs. While their spending practices are "probably legal," he said, "they are at least different from the spirit of the county's procurement policies and law."
Esch, Trilling and other volunteers said the companies often share manpower and equipment when needed, that they encourage advanced training by their personnel, and that spending practices are sound.
To achieve the "crucial" goal of promoting volunteerism, Kendal said, the new system would include a county employe with the full-time job of recruiting volunteers. More volunteers, he said, would lessen the need for more paid firefighters.
"But I know what'll happen," Esch said. Tougher, more time-consuming training standards would make it harder for volunteers to rise in rank, and some would quit, he said. Others would eventually realize that the top job available to them -- volunteer fire chief -- no longer carried the weight it once did, Esch said. They, too, would lose interest.
If volunteerism slackens, Esch and others said, the county would need more paid firefighters. Volunteers said these paid firefighters, even if they were allowed to, generally would not be inclined to shoo a bat from an attic, pump water from a flooded cellar or hang flags for the Potomac Chamber of Commerce before the Fourth of July.
"What they're talking about is an impersonal, big-city department," Trilling said. "And we'd just like to ask the public one question: What have we ever done wrong to deserve this?"