The Montgomery County Council heard from more than 40 speakers last night at an emotional public hearing on County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist's proposal to reorganize the county's largely volunteer fire department under professional supervision.
With volunteer firemen sitting on one side of the room cheering on those speaking against the bill, and paid firemen packing the rest of the room and cheering for Gilchrist and his supporters, the hearing quickly took on the appearance of a high school basketball game.
Forty-three speakers-with Gilchrist leading off-signed up for the first of two public hearings scheduled on Gilchrist's proposal, which would centralize the county's 18 fire departments under the county government, and a bill submitted by council member Elizabeth L. Scull, which would leave most of the authority in the hands of the volunteers.
Gilchrist told the council he had four major reasons for requesting the re-organization: public safety, accountability, cost control and tax equity.
"Under the present system, we have an uneven, fragmented, and at times unreliable system," Gilchrist said. "Emergency situations, especially complex ones, require anticipation and preparation; fast, sure response; highly qualified leadership; complete coordination and communication; coolness under pressure; and the ability and willingness to judge performance to minimize past mistakes. Measured against these criteria our fire service today falls short too often."
Under the present system each of the 18 county fire departments is an autonomous unit. Each buys its own equipment, has its own chain of command and taxes local citizens depending on annual cost.
The Gilchrist bill would centralize command and tax requirements and make county employes of the 731 paid professional firemen now on the force. There are an estimated 1,500 volunteers in the county, but supporters of the bill claim that only a few hundred are active.
Gilchrist supporters included Royce Hanson, his opponent last year in the Democratic primary; a number of professional firemen; and representatives of several local medical groups. They testified that rescue service throughout the county was inconsistent.
Spokesmen for the volunteers, insisted that if their autonomy were taken away many would resign and the county would be forced to resort to an all-paid department. Also opposing the Gilchrist measure were a number of representatives from the northern, less populated areas of the county who noted that the bill would drive their fire taxes up.
Gilchrist has maintained that in addition to making the department more efficient, his bill would save the county a minimum of $300,000 a year out of the current $21 million fire budget.
That figure was disputed throughout the hearing, most notably by Scull, who carefully questioned each supporter of the Gilchrist bill. At one point, when Hanson pointed out that a decentralized police department in the county would never be considered in the 1970s, Scull interrupted and said: "You're not trying to tell us that our centralized police department is inexpensive are you?" This brought cheers from the volunteer side of the room.
"No," Hanson answered, "but I think a decentralized department would be a helluva lot more expensive." Cheers erupted from the paid men.
Sharp debate over the emotional issue is expected to continue at a second public hearing next week until the rival bills are voted on in late June. The bills have been designated as "emergency" legislation and passage will require approval of five of the seven board members.