Fire board's role debated

Volunteer firefighters could lose say over selection of chiefs under Robey proposal

October 08, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

The county's six volunteer fire companies would be stripped of their key role in selecting the next fire chief under a bill introduced in the County Council at the request of County Executive James N. Robey.

Under current law, the seven-member Fire & Rescue Services Board - made up mostly of nominees picked by the Howard County Volunteer Fireman's Association - selects the candidates for fire chief that the county executive will choose from when there is a vacancy.

Robey said that he is proposing to eliminate the fire board's authority to narrow the candidate pool because the department no longer is dominated by volunteers.

"We're the only jurisdiction with a fire board that does this," he said. "It was created many, many years ago because the fire department was pretty much all volunteers, and they wanted to be able to recommend their own person. Things have changed, and we don't use this process to appoint any other department head."

Robey also said that, in light of discussions with members of the fire board, he would offer an amendment to the bill requiring the county executive to notify the board of the executive's choice before making a public announcement.

"If they have strong objections that end up making sense to me, then I would be inclined to listen to them," Robey said. "I don't think any executive would want a chief who wouldn't work collegially with volunteers."

Diana L. Coll, chairwoman of the county fire board, said she expects several members of the fire board to speak out against the proposal when the bill comes up for debate Oct. 16.

She said that the fire department's mixture of volunteer and career firefighters requires a different selection process from those for other department heads.

"This basically means we have less say, and we want to have equal say," said Coll, who heard of the proposal from a volunteer fire chief and then met with Robey. "The [fire] union has their front, and we need our front as well."

Richard L. Ruehl, president of the firefighters' union, which represents only paid staff, said that the union had proposed this change to Robey in "past years" but that he was surprised to see the bill introduced.

"When this selection system was created, it was probably more than appropriate for a fire service that was vastly volunteer," Ruehl said. "But in the at least 25 years since then, the fire department has completely switched its axis. It has become a career department subsidized with volunteers. Because of that, it's more than appropriate for this language to be updated."

Ruehl has sharply criticized the county's management of its approximately 650 volunteers, arguing that Fire Chief Joseph A. Herr gives them too much control over staffing levels, equipment and buildings.

The relationship between Robey and the fire union also has been strained. In May, Robey accused Ruehl of trying to extract contract concessions from him in exchange for the union's endorsement in his race for state Senate.

Herr, who has been fire chief for almost six years, said this week that he supports Robey's proposal but also could "see all sides" of the debate.

"The process that I went through was something that I thought was very fair and a very good process," Herr said. "But that was then, and I don't know what challenges the next county executive may face in the future."

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