The Montgomery County Council, in a significant first step to bring the county's firefighting system under government control, voted yesterday to transfer the system's 700 career firefighters from volunteer-controlled corporations to county employment.
The seven-member council voted unanimously to adopt emergency legislation strongly pushed by County Executive Sidney Kramer that will make career firefighters, who are paid with county funds, subject to all rules and regulations of the county government.
The vote was a clear victory for Kramer, who favors greater centralization of the unusual hybrid fire system that relies on both public and private resources. Kramer had made the legislation a priority of his first year in office.
Yesterday's action means a savings to county taxpayers of $2.5 million a year because firefighters, in becoming county employes, will be eligible for overtime pay only after 53 hours of work a week. Now they receive overtime pay after 40 hours under the terms of a recent federal court ruling.
The implications, however, go beyond the economic savings. Career firefighters, who had been subject to the varying rules of 18 corporations, will now be under the same set of county personnel regulations and they most likely will be able to engage in collective bargaining.
County officials had been dissatisfied with different training and safety standards among the firefighters as well as what has been called poor performance by the fire service in hiring minority group members and women.
County officials vowed yesterday to launch a major effort to recruit and hire minorities and women.
"This is a major step in rationalizing the system," said Robert K. Kendal, county budget director.
"It means consistency, uniformity, accountability and safety," said Kensington Volunteer Fire Chief Ted Jarboe, a career firefighter who supported the bill.
The vote brought a particularly joyful moment for Norman Conway, head of the Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association, which has been battling for county employment for 21 years.
When it became apparent after an afternoon of laborious debate that the council would unanimously approve the legislation, Conway turned to friends and colleagues and slapped their hands.
Asked how he felt, Conway replied, "Like a helium balloon."
The legislation goes into effect immediately, but Kendal said the transition of actually bringing the workers into the county system will take up to three months.
The volunteers, with a tradition of firefighting dating to 1892, had fought various forms of county control for at least two decades and, for some, yesterday's action was a bitter disappointment.
Although volunteers had bitterly opposed the move, they reluctantly agreed to the reclassification after negotiating with county officials during the last three weeks.
Council member William E. Hanna Jr., an outspoken supporter of the volunteers who initially opposed the bill as an unwarranted county intrusion, said it was the volunteers who gave up the most, going "90 percent of the way" to reach an accommodation with the county.
"I'm surprised," Hanna said, by the volunteers giving in to the county reclassification of the firefighters.
Council Vice President Michael Subin said it wasn't a question of the volunteers' making concessions but rather their recognizing that they simply didn't have the votes on the council.
That became apparent soon after the council was gaveled to order at 1 p.m., and council member Michael Gudis, the undecided swing vote, introduced some compromise amendments.
There followed a painstaking process of trying to work out language acceptable to all parties. Subin called it a matter of the volunteers "cutting their losses."
However, Devin Doolan, a Maryland lobbyist hired by some volunteers to press their case, hailed it as the council's showing support for the volunteers.
Of particular importance to the volunteers was some protection that they would not be discriminated against, that they would still be involved in day-to-day operations, and that an official in a new position to strengthen the volunteers will report to the Fire Rescue Commission and not to the county's fire chief.
Kramer originally had planned to follow up the employe reclassification with other bills that would bring fire service spending and equipment under greater county control.
Kramer has backed such centralization as a way to operate the service more efficiently and as necesssary because of the declining number of volunteers.
It was unclear last night after the bitter and protracted debate whether Kramer would feel he had the opportunity and support to press his bid.
Kramer has made no secret of his desire for more control but has stressed he doesn't want to lose the involvement of volunteers.
Some volunteers have said that a county takeover would discourage volunteerism and would end up costing the county more because of lost services.