The Washington Post

Proposed fire department changes call to question volunteers’ autonomy

Directed by the County Council to crack down on take-home cars, Montgomery Fire and Rescue Service Chief Richard Bowers tried earlier this year to restrict vehicle use by volunteer firefighters.

But his efforts, prompted by concerns that many agencies had been lax in managing their fleets, went nowhere.

A county board that oversees fire-rescue policy vetoed the chief’s proposed changes and, in the process, set off another debate about the role volunteer firefighters should have in a county of almost a million people.

The volunteers say the Fire and Emergency Services Commission preserves their vital role in providing fire protection in a county too large and too spread out to be safeguarded by only salaried firefighters. But some county legislators view the commission as an impediment to putting fire-rescue resources to best use.

On Tuesday, Council members Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) will propose legislation that would take away the veto power of the commission, which has volunteer, union and civilian members.

The bill is the latest salvo in the struggle over how volunteers fit in local communities that were once once largely rural but now are mostly suburban and even becoming urban.

Montgomery County is not alone in grappling with the issue. Next door, Prince George’s County is considering changes, too.

On Tuesday, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) will present the Prince George’s County Council with two bills to remake the county’s fire commission and strip it of supervisory and budgeting powers.

In both counties, the volunteers oppose the bills.

“The commission is the last bastion of participation for the community and the volunteers,” said Eric N. Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

The president of the Prince George’s volunteer group, Bill Smith, called Baker’s move a “betrayal” of promises the county executive made before and after coming into office last year. “The county executive is going to these measures without including us in the decision-making, asking our opinion or bringing us to the table,” Smith said.

Rise of salaried firefighters

Decades ago, volunteers took all the fire calls in the suburbs, but county governments have incorporated salaried firefighters into departments over the years.

In Prince George’s today, there are about 750 salaried and 600 volunteer firefighters, according to the county. In Anne Arundel, the 830 salaried firefighters are complemented by 550 volunteers, while in Howard the 720 volunteers outnumber the 400 salaried firefighters, according to those counties. In more rural Charles and St. Mary’s counties, volunteers are still the norm. In the District, as in most major cities, there are only salaried firefighters.

Each Maryland jurisdiction that uses volunteers handles oversight differently, but in few counties do the fire commissions or boards have as much power as they do in Montgomery and Prince George’s.

The members of the four-decade-old fire commission in Prince George’s are elected solely by the volunteers. Though it does not have veto power, the commission prepares a county budget of more than $11 million and reviews volunteer expenditure requests.

If the Prince George’s council approves Baker’s legislation, the county fire chief would take control of the budgeting and the council would approve nominees to the commission, which would be reconfigured to include members who are not volunteer firefighters.

Baker also has issued an executive order concerning the fire commission. If the council does not block the order by Nov. 14, the volunteers still lose the ability to vote in commission members.

Baker also is creating a deputy chief position to supervise the volunteer force.

This is not the first time that the county has tried to change the commission. In October 2008, then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson proposed legislation to replace the group with a panel of residents, volunteers and paid firefighters he would appoint. But Johnson eventually dropped the bill.

Rift in Montgomery County

In Montgomery, merging pains started decades ago. At the time, volunteers voted for local fire chiefs in Montgomery, the last county in the region to give fire companies that much autonomy.

The volunteers fought to keep that power, repeatedly shooting down merger attempts. But in 2004, then-Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) succeeded in pushing through a merger under a career chief.

The county’s working volunteer force dropped from 2,000 in the 1980s to 700 today. The career force has more than doubled since the 1970s, from 520 to 1,175, a trend that has been attributed to decreased volunteerism and to urbanization.

Since the merger, tensions have flared. In May 2010, the County Council approved an ambulance fee that it said would save $14 million a year. The volunteers, who said the fee would deter residents from using ambulance services, helped organize a referendum vote that struck down the fee.

In February, Bowers gave salaried firefighters control of the Burtonsville fire station after receiving reports of harassment by volunteers. Soon after, the volunteer fire chief and four other senior volunteer fire officials at the station resigned.

Elrich and Leventhal see the fire commission as another obstacle to the county’s efforts to manage public safety personnel. Earlier this year, the county and its police officers fought over scheduling and other personnel matters, with the county eliminating the officers’ right to bargain such issues in labor negotiations.

“With the staffing cuts and the budget cuts, I don’t think we have the luxury of tying up our department heads in endless rounds of meetings that add minimal value,” Leventhal said.

This is not the first time council members have gone after the fire commission. In 2008, Elrich, Leventhal and others pushed to eliminate a previous version of the commission. The effort failed.

Now, frustrated by the take-home vehicle tempest, Elrich and Leventhal are trying to make the commission an advisory body.

“It’s cars now,” Elrich said. “It could be something different later.”

The vehicle policy that Bowers proposed would have been implemented systemwide, but the changes would have disproportionately affected the volunteers, who have been governed by a looser set of rules. Neither group’s policies had been updated since the 1990s, Bowers said.

Paul Lilly, a member of the fire commission and a volunteer firefighter, said he hopes the council leaves the veto power in place.

Lilly said that the commission approves the vast majority of policies, in part because the chief sometimes tweaks proposals before the vote if he believes the vote will be split.

“It’s an easy way to make sure the fire services as a whole are playing nice and at the same time that the mission is being accomplished,” Lilly said.



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