A smoldering 19-month debate on whether to give the director of the county’s fire and rescue service more authority may be drawing to an end soon, but a last-minute proposal could give the Frederick County Board of Commissioners another option to think about before they make a decision.
About 100 elected officials, volunteers and career firefighters on Tuesday night attended the first of two public hearings on the contentious issue before the commissioners at Winchester Hall in Frederick. Another hearing is scheduled for Jan. 8.
Critics of the proposal to make Tom Owens, the current director of the county Fire and Rescue Services Division, chief of the countywide fire and rescue operation said they feared it would lead to a loss of autonomy for the county’s 3,600 volunteers and ultimately lead to a dramatic drop in volunteer participation.
Tim May, the current chaplain and a past president of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, questioned how much incentive he would have to volunteer and serve his community if fire operations were consolidated under one chief rather than the individual chiefs of the 26 companies in the county.
“What you’re taking away from this county will never come back,” May said.
Thurmont Mayor Marty Burns said that if the five commissioners vote to make Owens the county chief, they’ll start a process that will eventually dissolve the volunteer fire service in the county.
Frederick County fire companies have always provided an excellent level of service without the presence of a unified fire chief, some for more than 100 years, Burns said.
Walkersville Burgess Ralph Whitmore said his town was strongly opposed to the move.
“We’re not going to stand idly by and watch the volunteers disappear in this county,” Whitmore said.
Several speakers praised the job that Owens has done since taking over in February 2010, and said their opposition was not against him but to the chief’s position being created.
There are currently several options under consideration, the most controversial of which would give more power to Owens as director of the fire and rescue division by making him chief of that agency. Currently, he can set policies such as training requirements for paid staff members but not for personnel at the volunteer stations.
Owens has told the commissioners on numerous occasions that the current system leaves him responsible for decisions that he has no real authority to control, a point he reiterated at Tuesday’s hearing.
In November 2009, before Owens’ arrival, 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 board of commissioners confirmed their desire to provide the new authority, directing county officials to write an amendment to the county code fully integrating the volunteer and career personnel under one leader.
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.
It would also create an advisory council composed of members of the volunteer companies, the public, the fire and rescue association and the Frederick County Career Firefighters and Paramedics Association, which could provide input to the chief and be able to appeal directly to the commissioners or the county executive once the county transitions to charter government in 2014.
But the proposal drew opposition from county volunteers, who rejected the original proposed amendment in March.
At its Nov. 15 meeting, the association rejected the revised ordinance by a vote of 16-8. One company wasn’t represented, and one abstained from the vote.
A second proposal would tweak some elements of the county plan, such as changing Owens’ title from “chief” to “director,” and allowing each fire company to elect representatives to the council.
A third proposal was suggested Tuesday night by Vaughn Zimmerman, a member of the Walkersville Volunteer Fire Company, who claimed that the county's proposal was “being jammed down our throats because of a job description that went awry.”
Zimmerman’s proposal would revamp the volunteer fire association into a board made up of the president and chief of each company, with each member having a vote.
The association would be able to enforce policies, standards and guidelines for the volunteer companies and work together with the county fire and rescue division to ensure the cooperation of career and volunteer firefighters.
“Give the volunteers a voice in the affairs, and this would give them the incentive to continue to serve,” Zimmerman told the commissioners.
The association is scheduled to discuss the latter two proposals tonight.
Commissioner David Gray (R) said he was impressed with Zimmerman’s proposal and suggested trying the system for a year to see if it is feasible.
Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) reminded the audience of the second hearing next month, but said he didn’t know if the board would make a decision at that time.
But the commissioners would like to resolve the issue before they leave office, he said.
“At some point, we do need to conclude this and move forward,” Young said.