What's wrong with the fire department isn't the command structure

August 02, 1992|By Michael W. Robinson

Your recent article, "Shake-up planned for firefighters" [The Anne Arundel County Sun, July 27, 1992], cited proposals by the county fire administration to "bring order to what we are doing."

This order will allegedly appear upon the elimination of the operational chain of command that has been in effect since 1977.

I would contend that the alleged "disorder" is somewhere within the fire department, but not within the command structure.

If we look at the history behind the fire department chain of command, we will find a document that was written and agreed upon by both career and volunteer firefighters. This chain of command was the result of a management task force that was appointed by the Pascal administration following the deaths of a career and a volunteer firefighter at a 1976 fire.

As a result, with its implementation in the late 1970s, this management audit meant: volunteer firefighter/officer qualifications, 24-hour career chief supervision at significant emergencies and an integrated chain of command. The document was codified into departmental rules and regulations and has been the basis for successful scene management ever since.

Additionally this document has survived two court challenges. The last of these was upheld by the Court of Appeals. With these facts in mind one would question the need or reason for changing such a political, yet operationally essential, aspect of the fire service.

Aside from demoralizing the volunteer fire service and uplifting other factions, the transition to a new chain of command will have minimal effect on anything other than perhaps creating anarchy should the volunteers refuse to accept it.

Is it truly a sound management initiative at the cost of threatening our public safety? Does this make management sense in the middle of undetermined state budget cuts?

The current chain of command as I understand it allows the concerns of the fire administrator and transition team to be met. Here's how it works:

* Career officers shall retain command of their first due districts.

* The career battalion chief upon arrival at the scene may assume command.

* The operational chain of command is as follows:

Career battalion chief

Volunteer chief/assistant chief

Career captain

Career lieutenant

Volunteer lieutenant

Career firefighter (respective ranks)

Volunteer firefighter

The system allows the ranking career officer to control the scene. For purposes of accountability and discipline, volunteer officers are considered analogous to their career counterparts.

What is to be gained by eliminating the position of volunteer chief and assistant chief to the distress of an already demoralized volunteer fire service?

One might see this decision in terms of a political victory for some and a defeat for others. Others might see it as a costly legal quagmire that pits the county charter against the charters of most volunteer corporations.

Could it mean that the volunteer fire service is now being denied "equal opportunity?" The elimination of two volunteer positions will reduce the opportunities to advance in rank. Will altruism prevail?

The county charter clearly allows the fire administrator to make this decision. It is his contention that the change is being prompted by the transition team's report. The county executive says that he is apolitical on this issue.

So let's look at the scapegoat: the transition team. This was a well-versed group consisting of business and community leaders. The fire department transition group included a past county fire administrator, the Annapolis fire chief and a former state union official. The volunteer fire service was represented by a volunteer fire administrative officer and an inactive volunteer fire chief who also was a former county firefighter.

Having appeared before this group and reviewed its 14 recommendations -- including the chain of command -- I would contend that there were many "hidden agendas."

In fact, since the presentation of the transition report, several of its members have both repudiated it and denied knowing of its contents until it was presented.

What about bringing both the career and volunteer leaders together and form a task force to discuss the issue, a common practice in the corporate sector. Or, the county could tap into the command experiences of its many resident military officers, active and retired.

Before the county fire department makes a decision based solely on the recommendation of a transition team, wouldn't it be more prudent to assess the underlying problem, if in fact one exists?

Most county fire personnel in a command position, career and volunteer, will tell you that the current management setup is well defined and functions smoothly at an emergency scene.

Perhaps it is time to put safety first and ensure the continuance of the best possible fire protection in light of fiscal austerity.

To accomplish this will mean dedication from a leadership that is both empathetic and compassionate to the needs of the "combined" fire services to which the county is committed to preserve.

To meet this objective will require an assessment of the origin and intent of the transition team's chain of command recommendation. To hastily implement such a recommendation would be irresponsible and detrimental to the continuance of a "combined" fire service.

Mr. Robinson is a former volunteer fire chief and a current member of the county's Fire Advisory Board. He also is an instructor in "Incident Command and Management" at the National Fire Academy.

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