County volunteer firefighters endorse restructuring law
June 9, 2004
Warren Parish
Staff Writer

Decide not to take law to referendum, officials say

A key volunteer firefighter association has endorsed a new law that will restructure Montgomery County's fire and rescue system, placing both volunteer and career firefighters under the authority of a single chief.

Members of the Community Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, which represents 18 of Montgomery County's 19 volunteer fire departments, voted in mid-May to reject bringing the recently passed law to referendum. No dissenting votes were reportedly cast in the closed meeting.

"It's a new day and we're going to work hard to make the system work for everyone," said Eric N. Bernard, a member of the association and president of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.

In early May, the County Council unanimously approved the controversial bill that will replace the fire administrator position with a single, uniformed chief with power over professional firefighters and previously independent volunteers alike.

"I'm pleased that we reached a conclusion or consensus where everyone is still working together," said the bill's author, Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown. " ... We've laid out an organizational chart where it is very clear about who is responsible for decisions."

The Community Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association will represent volunteer interests during the transition period that will end when the bill takes effect Jan. 1, said the organization's president, Michael J. Weiner.

"It's a time for us to take our hands off the rearview mirror and start looking straight ahead," he said, reflecting on the political struggle, which resulted in the passage of an amended fire bill.

" ... There are still some wounds," he added. "It's going to take some time to deal with and we're trusting that it's started."

The bill creates two division chiefs, one charged with overseeing career firefighters, the other with supervising volunteers who will report to the fire chief.

The volunteers, who described the bill as a power grab on the part of the county, vainly fought to include a provision that would have made local fire department chiefs equal in rank to the new division chiefs.

Knapp and other critics say the county's fire and rescue services labored under a diffuse command structure marked by poor communication and distrust between volunteer and career firefighters.

Emphasizing the upside now that the reorganization is a reality, Bernard said the bill provides protections to volunteers.

The bill guarantees volunteer rights to collective bargaining, discipline parity for both volunteer and paid firefighters and the establishment of the executive director position charged with acting as a union-like advocate for the volunteers.

"There's some concern, but everyone's pleased that it's over," Bernard said.

Selecting a fire chief who will represent all parties is the next step, he said before praising the County Council's decision to fund the volunteer executive director position as of July 1.

"That shows their commitment to making it work," Bernard said.

Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg was optimistic about the upcoming reorganization.

"I think things are going to improve," he said. "I think it was important for the council to end up with a bill that was broadly supported. Because what would have caused it to be a 5-4 vote would have caused it to go to referendum."

"It's done," Bernard said. "Let's work with the system and give it a chance."