The head of the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services will soon answer to the title of “chief.” Or “director,” if you prefer.
The Frederick County Board of Commissioners voted 3-1 Tuesday night to make fire and rescue boss Tom Owens director of the division, giving him the authority to oversee an integrated fire service composed of the county’s 335 paid firefighters and about 3,600 volunteers.
Commissioners’ Vice President C. Paul Smith (R) and Commissioner Billy Shreve (R) supported a motion by board President Blaine R. Young (R) to make Owens the director of the fire and rescue service holding the rank of chief.
Commissioner David Gray (R) voted against the measure, while Commissioner Kirby Delauter (R) was out of town and not present for the vote.
The vote took place after a public hearing that drew about 80 people to Winchester Hall in Frederick.
It was the second such hearing on a controversial plan that originally proposed giving Owens the title of chief but was adjusted after county volunteers balked out of fear that a countywide chief would inhibit the autonomy of the county’s 26 volunteer fire companies.
The change in the county code, which takes effect July 1, also creates a fire and rescue board, 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 nine-member board will provide input to the director and be able to appeal directly to the commissioners or the county executive once the county transitions to charter government in 2014.
Owens is already the director of the fire and rescue division, allowing him to set policies such as training requirements for paid personnel. However, he has had no control over such issues for the county’s volunteers.
Under the new ordinance, he would have such powers, although volunteer companies will retain control over their internal affairs.
Lt. John Neary, a career county firefighter and head of the local firefighters union, said his organization would support the proposal if it had the word “chief” in it somewhere, even if the volunteers used another term such as “director.”
“I can’t see a title being an issue to deal with,” Neary said.
But many who spoke at the meeting feared that if volunteers felt they were being pushed out of the process of running their stations, their enthusiasm for volunteering would begin to wane.
Bill Haugh, speaking on behalf of the Independent Hose Company in Emmitsburg, told the commissioners he didn’t think a majority of volunteers would disappear, although it would likely be a significant number.
He asked if the county is prepared to accept the financial repercussions if volunteer participation declines, and the county has to hire more paid staff to make up the difference.
John Zimmerman, president of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said the county can’t afford to lose the millions of dollars it saves every year by the work of volunteer firefighters.
“I hope you all make the right decision for the volunteers,” Zimmerman said.
Of the 12 speakers Tuesday, most urged the commissioners not to make a change or to give the volunteers more time to come up with another solution.
After the vote, Zimmerman said the commissioners were just going through the motions with the hearing and had already decided how they would vote.
“If they would’ve listened, they would’ve voted against it,” he said.
Before the vote, a motion by Gray to keep the status of the volunteers the same but implement the fire and rescue board contained in the proposal for a one-year trial period died for lack of a second.
After the vote, Shreve said he didn’t think the people who attended the hearings represented the majority of volunteers in the county.
The volunteer association approved the proposal at a December meeting by a vote of 17-7, he said. Two companies weren’t present for the vote.
“You’re never going to make 100 percent of the people involved happy,” Shreve said.
Smith and Young also doubted the speakers were a reliable indicator of how the majority of volunteers felt, with most of the people at the hearing having attended all the meetings on the issue.
“If those volunteer associations wanted to turn out those people, they would’ve turned them out,” Young said.
Owens said that although the vote may have upset some people, he didn’t see it causing a rift within the volunteer companies.
Most of them realize that the system had to change, he said.
And he didn’t expect the change in his title to have an impact on his day-to-day work as an administrator.
“It’s a process; it’s not an event,” he said.