Frederick County fire chief proposal dispute simmers -- Gazette.Net


Members of the fire and rescue community will have two opportunities to debate proposals that would increase the authority of the director of the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Services Division, including providing greater control over volunteer firefighters, which has been the source of a smoldering dispute for years.

The Frederick County Board of Commissioners voted 3-1 at a meeting Tuesday to send two proposals to public hearing, with Commissioners’ Vice President C. Paul Smith opposed and Commissioner David Gray absent.

The public hearings are set for Dec. 18 and Jan. 8.

The most controversial proposal would give more power to the director of the fire and rescue division by making him chief of the agency. Currently, Director Tom Owens can set policies such as training requirements for paid staff members of the division but not for personnel in the county’s 26 volunteer companies.

Owens told the commissioners Tuesday that the current structure results in decisions made by consensus among the separate volunteer entities. It needs to be changed in a way that creates clear lines of authority but keeps the mix of volunteer and career personnel, he said.

The current system also leaves him responsible for decisions that he has no real authority to control, Owens said.

The issue of the fire and rescue director has been simmering for several years.

In November 2009, before Owens’ arrival in February 2010, the previous board of commissioners authorized a change in the job description for the position, making the director responsible for all fire and rescue system management in the county. But the county code was never amended to give the director the legal authority to carry out the new responsibility.

In July 2011, the current commissioners confirmed their desire to provide the new authority, directing the county staff to write an amendment to the county code fully integrating the volunteer and career personnel under one leader.

But the proposal drew opposition from the county’s 3,600 volunteers, who feared a loss of autonomy under the change.

Although there is occasional friction within stations between volunteer and paid firefighting crews, the two sides generally have a good working relationship, according to Doug Orner, director of the county volunteer fire and rescue service. And everyone comes together when it’s time to respond to a call, he said.

The originally proposed amendment was rejected by the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association in March.

At its Nov. 15 meeting, the association rejected the revised ordinance by a vote of 16-8, with one fire company not represented and one abstaining, thereby recommending that the commissioners not accept it.

The county proposal as written would empower Owens to make “all determinations and decisions necessary to implement, establish and direct the implementation of an integrated fire and rescue services system for the provision of all fire and rescue services in Frederick County.”

Lt. John Neary, a career firefighter who is president of the county firefighter’s union, told the commissioners the time has come to put one person in charge of day-to-day operations in the county.

Career firefighters are assigned to a station and have to follow their own organization’s rules as well as those of that individual station, he said.

“When I walk in that day, I have to figure out what that station does first, then also apply what the career station policies are,” Neary said.

But he agreed that differences don’t spill over into fire calls.

“We do work well on the scenes, don’t get me wrong with that. But what I’m saying, there’s chances for problems to occur in what we do based on the fact that we have two groups doing two different things,” Neary said.

The proposal would allow each volunteer company to maintain control over its internal affairs as long as they don’t conflict with the countywide regulations and procedures.

The measure also would create an advisory council composed of members of the volunteer companies, the public, the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association and the Frederick County Career Firefighters and Paramedics Association.

The advisory council would provide input to the chief and also be able to appeal directly to the commissioners or the county executive once the county transitions to charter government in 2014.

The second proposal approved by the commissioners for public hearing would tweak some elements of the county plan, including changing Owens’ title from “chief” to “director,” while allowing each volunteer company to elect its representative to the council.

That proposal was presented by Chip Jewell, head of emergency communications for the county, as way to reach a consensus between firefighters.

Jewell, who has more than 40 years as a volunteer firefighter for the Libertytown company, said he was working on the project on a volunteer basis rather that in his official county government capacity.

“It will never be perfect,” Jewell said. “There is no perfect fire service.”

Jim May, the current chaplain and a past president of the fire and rescue association, asked the commissioners Tuesday to grant a 60-day postponement on the proposals, saying more time was needed to reach an agreement.

“Why create a rift that doesn’t exist?” he asked.

But Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young balked at the extension, saying the matter had already been delayed twice.

The public hearings on the proposals are scheduled for 7 p.m. at Winchester Hall in Frederick on Dec. 18 and Jan. 8.