The Prince George’s fire department has been on an unprecedented hiring spree, bringing in about 250 new recruits during the past three years to improve safety and response times.
But the hiring has not been without controversy.
The county is the nation’s largest combination volunteer and career fire department, with 820 career fire and rescue staff working side by side with more than 1,000 volunteers. The recent spurt — all career firefighters — has exacerbated tensions among volunteers who worry that they are being pushed out.
“The bottom line is about service,” said Prince George’s Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor, adding that hiring more paid firefighters will improve response times. “We have demonstrated that our service has suffered because we worried if it was a paid person or a volunteer putting out the fire.”
For the county’s volunteer rank and file, the hiring of more paid firefighters is a direct threat to a grand tradition in the county: a robust and active volunteer firefighting corps that shows unprecedented investment in its community. Volunteer firefighters also point out that they continue to save the county money by reducing expenses on emergency services.
“The volunteers have a long history in Prince George’s,” said Pete Mellits, head of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, which has opposed some of the recent hirings. “Our goal is not to be antagonistic to the chief and the union. Our goal is to preserve the volunteers.”
The dispute in Prince George’s is mirrored nationwide. In suburban and rural counties alike, local governments are looking to increase the amount of professional paid firefighters, sometimes at the expense of volunteer ones. In many cases, officials say that they need more professional firefighters to keep up with population growth and that it’s harder to find volunteer workers. About 69 percent of firefighters nationwide are volunteers, but like Prince George’s, volunteerism is dwindling, decreasing 13 percent during the past 30 years.
By hiring more paid staff, localities can ensure that they will have enough emergency workers, experts say.
Kimberly Quiros, director of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said tensions have always existed among career and volunteer firefighters as both feel one is trying to take the job of the other. At the end of the day, she said, volunteer firefighters save taxpayers $147 billion a year.
“That’s money that just simply is not going to be available” if volunteer companies disappeared, Quiros said. “The volunteers really provide a huge benefit for communities that can’t afford to pay and have an all-career staff.”
Indeed, Jonathan Wood, president of the Fairfax County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said Fairfax went through similar growing pains in the 1970s as career crews replaced volunteers. He said it is not uncommon for volunteers to feel threatened by such changes.
“Let’s say you work at an organization that said a portion of it is going to be outsourced to China,” Wood said. “That person is going to say, ‘Well, hold it. That was my job.’ You can see where emotions can run high.”
Those tensions are common enough that the National Volunteer Fire Council offers classes to departments transitioning to add career staff on how to keep the peace and effectively manage fire and rescue services.
The friction between volunteer and county-paid firefighters has hummed behind the scenes in Prince George’s since the first career staff members came on board in the 1970s. But that tension has sharpened in recent years as the county ramps up recruiting after a hiring freeze during the recent recession.
The tension came to a head last year when the volunteer firefighters in Morningside, a small town in Prince George’s, found themselves in a feud with the county about the future of their department. The volunteer firefighters argued that they should not be required to take additional county-paid staff, which is ultimately funded by taxpayers.
The debate got so bad that Morningside’s volunteer fire chief, Michael White, had threatened to remove a county-owned ambulance from the station, while Bashoor threatened to strip White of his title.
“Prince George’s County entered into a new agreement with the [union] without consulting the stakeholders that would be directly affected by this unilateral change,” White wrote in a letter blasting the county fire department. “This new agreement explicitly prohibits the current staffing model that has been successfully utilized at the MVFD Fire Station.”
Bashoor said the county’s aggressive hiring of career recruits has stemmed from several factors. The county has to meet the terms of the recent union contract designed to make working conditions safer. Bashoor also said volunteer participation is dwindling, the population is growing and an average of 39 career personnel retire annually.
With 37 volunteer corporations and a union representing the career firefighters, the struggle is to develop a cohesive way of serving the community with “38 different personalities” that have different ideas about what is best, Bashoor said.
Indeed, because of the new hires, response times are expected to improve. In 2011, average fire engine response times clocked in at 7 minutes 1 second. That time is expected to drop to 6 minutes 50 seconds by the close of this fiscal year, based on 2014 budget documents. The response time for basic life-support calls is also expected to improve by at least 12 seconds this year compared with 2012.
“For years, the Prince George’s fire department staffed itself like a rural volunteer department and not like the 15th-busiest fire department in the United States,” said Andrew Pantelis, president of the union representing paid firefighters in the county.
Prince George’s fire officials say they need to hire more career crews to also avoid overtime costs and keep crews safe. In fiscal 2013, the county budgeted $5 million to pay for firefighter overtime. But the department spent all of that halfway through the budget year. Prince George’s wound up exceeding its planned overtime spending by about $3.9 million, according to county records.
But volunteer savings are real, and the training is comparable to that of paid staff, Mellits and others say. In 2013, Morningside’s chief said volunteers provided more than 25,000 hours of staffing to the community, equivalent to more than $1.7 million in taxpayer savings. On the whole, the county’s volunteer fire and rescue members save Prince George’s tens of millions of dollars annually, according to the county’s Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.
“It’s been a long tradition,” said Monique Ackerman, 38, who has been a volunteer firefighter since he was 16. “I believe it is dying out.”
To help strike a balance between the two sides, leaders representing volunteer firefighters in Prince George’s are considering ways to develop a collective bargaining unit similar to the union that represents career firefighters. The idea, Mellits and others hope, is to give the volunteers more leverage.
“Are we providing staff to support the community or to support a union contract?” Mellits said.
In Morningside, for instance, instead of complying with the additional staffing requirements, volunteers decided in November to become the ninth all-volunteer company out of the county’s 45 stations. That helped end the showdown over the ambulance.
The new arrangement at Morningside, which started this month, is reportedly going well. But that doesn’t mean fresh conflicts won’t arise.
“It has been a struggle for the two sides to live harmoniously day-to-day,” Bashoor said of the county’s historic rift between volunteer and career staff. “But when that bell rings, everyone stands up to do the job.”