Manassas officials might have to search for another Fire and Rescue Department chief, as Brett Bowman reconsiders whether he wants to accept the job in a department that lost its last chief and interim chief because of turmoil in the agency.
Bowman, the assistant fire chief in Prince William County, accepted the job last month and was scheduled to begin May 2, city officials said. Bowman, however, has asked for a 30-day extension and said he would make a decision by week’s end.
“Issues have occurred prior to my start date that have caused me some concern and resulted in my asking for additional time to consider the job,” Bowman said.
Bowman said that the issues do not have to do with operational aspects but rather the conduct of certain individuals. He declined to comment further.
“I’m very concerned about being able to fill and maintain that [chief] position,” Manassas council member Jonathan L. Way (R) said. “There are organizational issues and personality issues that need to be fixed. We don’t want to drive volunteers away in all this, but the management of the volunteers needs to do some serious soul searching in how they can best serve the city.”
Manassas officials began a search to fill the position after Fire Chief Michael L. Wood resigned in December. Wood’s departure occurred as volunteer and career members continued to clash over the organization of the fire and rescue system and who should be in charge.
Wood had said that the structure of the fire and rescue system — which includes a paid staff, the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company and the Greater Manassas Volunteer Rescue squad — gave him responsibility and liability but no mechanism to influence or manage change. He noted that he has had a good relationship with the volunteer rescue squad.
“I really think the structure here is inefficient and predisposes our personnel and community to unnecessary risks,” Wood said. “I’ve attempted . . . to try and remedy those deficiencies, but, unfortunately, there is a strong desire to fight change.”
Facing similar concerns, interim Fire and Rescue Chief Dale McCleese resigned April 27, days before his position was set to expire. Wade House has stepped into the role of acting chief.
McCleese said that the last straw was during an April 27 meeting in which Volunteer Fire Department Chief Matt Lausch provided what McCleese believed to be false information to the City Council regarding training qualifications of his crew, and the City Council didn’t act. The issue, sources said, is that nobody knows what the training qualifications are because the volunteer fire company has not provided that information.
Lausch said that he did not lie to the council and that McCleese had “inferred things” that were not said. He also said that McCleese’s early departure was planned before the dispute, because earlier in the day a memo had gone out saying that McCleese would be “out of the office” the rest of the week.
“Even though I was not going to be in the office, I was still responsible until I turned the position over,” McCleese said, noting that if the police chief was gone on vacation, he would still be liable for his department. “I officially resigned that night so I wouldn’t be held responsible for anything that happened in those last four days. The career chief is held responsible yet has no authority, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Since then, Lausch has provided training records for his “line officers,” which include the chief and assistant chief, but not the records for the other nearly 80 members. He said that whether he releases those records depends on the policies and procedures of a proposed new uniformed ranking system — something used in Prince William to more closely align the training standards of career and volunteer members.
Lausch said that he also wants to sit down with Bowman and work through reservations he might have. Lausch said that he had tried to reach out to him, but Bowman has not been available. The two were together at a fire and rescue meeting Wednesday, but Lausch said he did not have a chance to talk to him there.
“It’s important for that position to be filled,” Lausch said. “We believe the system created is the right one to move forward with . . . and I just want to do what’s right and makes sense so we can provide the best service we can.”
Despite the bickering at the administrative level, both city and fire officials said residents’ safety has not been compromised. Officials are, however, concerned about getting a chief who will stay with the department.
“We have organizational issues we are trying to work through,” Manassas council member Mark Wolfe (R) said. “But what we are going through, other communities have already gone through. . . . In an urban setting, you can’t have a predominantly volunteer fire and rescue system anymore.”
The county recently redesigned the structure of its Fire and Rescue Department, which consists of career and volunteer members. Prince William Fire Chief Kevin McGee said they worked together for several months to come up with a plan everyone supported. That, he said, contributed to a smooth implementation of the new structure.
Council members said they will wait and see what Bowman decides before intervening. Some said they support the system the way it is, while others think it needs to be readdressed. Way said that he wants to consider the Virginia Department of Fire Programs recent study, which concluded that Manassas should give more authority to the paid chief.
“The organization now was done as a compromise and wasn’t one anyone wanted,” Way said. “In my opinion, the organizational flaws should be fixed before we hunt for another chief.”