Burning Issue Belongs on the Ballot

July 12, 1994

The County Council recently had the opportunity to let voters resolve a thorny issue that elected leaders have avoided for 30 years -- the relationship between career and volunteer firefighters. Sad to say, the council's political motivations got in the way of doing what is best for the county.

Unwilling to anger the volunteers this close to an election, the council refused to put on the November ballot a charter amendment mandating changes in the Fire Department, including giving it greater control over volunteer companies. The amendment was based on nearly a year's worth of work by an impartial citizens advisory committee -- work that council members tossed on the trash heap with less debate than they typically devote to deciding what kind of erasers to buy.

Contrary to the picture painted by the volunteers, friction between them and their paid counterparts existed long before the Neall administration. The county charter, adopted in 1964, makes it clear that volunteers, who until then handled all fire suppression, resisted the very concept of a county fire department.

Since then, the volunteers have never fully accepted that the charter mandates they are part of one cohesive fire department under the county fire administrator. Fortunately, the two groups have always worked together at fire scenes. Otherwise, however, the committee found that volunteer companies "seem to believe they have the right and power to be selectively subordinate" when it comes to county equipment inspections, requests to borrow equipment and other administrative decisions.

A year ago, County Executive Robert R. Neall tried to exert authority by eliminating the rank of volunteer chief and subordinating top volunteers to career captains at fire scenes. He succeeded only in insulting them to no good purpose. Insubordination at the fire scene, after all, is not the problem.

The committee wisely suggested restoring the volunteer chiefs -- in exchange for the volunteers' agreement to abide by the administration's operational policies. It recognized that the issue is the county's responsibility to manage fire department resources effectively, one it cannot fulfill if the volunteers are constantly going their separate ways.

This is an issue of refining local government to make it work better. It belongs on the ballot.

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