Volunteer firefighters resign from Burtonsville station
Move comes in response to county's decision to put career firefighters in charge
Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Chief Robert E. Ryan and four other senior volunteer officials resigned from their posts as Burtonsville volunteers Saturday while also requesting demotions from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service that oversees both career and volunteer firefighters countywide.
The move came in response to county fire and rescue service Chief Richard R. Bowers' Feb. 24 decision to transfer command of the Burtonsville station to career firefighters following complaints the station's volunteers were mistreating their career counterparts, even urinating on the door handles of career firefighters' vehicles, said county fire and rescue spokesman Assistant Chief Scott Graham. Volunteer officials contested the complaints, saying those that were found to be substantive had been investigated and dealt with while also arguing Bowers' action was illegal, said Burtonsville Volunteer Firefighter Department spokeswoman Tami Bulla.
The Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service is a combination service that includes both volunteer and career firefighters, but each of the county's 19 volunteer departments technically is an independent organization from the Montgomery County government. Bowers, a career official, is the chief of the county fire and rescue service, but he wields limited control of the day-to-day management of the different volunteer departments because of their independence, leading to some of the tension between career and volunteer officials.
Within the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, a master list called the Integrated Emergency Command Structure outlines the rank of every career and volunteer firefighter from chief officers down to entry-level firefighters. The master list defines, based on the level of training, what kinds of calls each is capable of responding to, according to fire officials. Ryan and his colleagues requested demotions Saturday that placed them at the rank of master firefighters on this master list, Graham said.
After accepting the demotions, however, Ryan and the others resigned from the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department itself, which has its own independent membership list, Bulla said.
Craig S. Baker, formerly the president of the volunteer department's board of directors, also resigned Saturday, making Bulla the acting president. In addition to these resignations, many non-rank volunteers also have resigned from the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department in response to the county's decision, Bulla said.
"As of 0700 hours Sunday morning, we suffered the most devastating loss of leadership in the history of the department,'' Bulla said of the resignations. "Both our chief and our president have resigned, [and] the majority of our operating officers have resigned their positions as well."
While the volunteers have resigned from the volunteer department's staff list, all of them remain active on the county's master list, Graham said.
"They're still on the Integrated Emergency Command Structure list, so what they have chosen to do is to no longer provide staffing [at that department]," he said. "They're capable of running calls, they're just choosing not to at this point."
Since Saturday, a steady number of volunteers have shown up to help the department staff its emergency response vehicles, according to Graham and Bulla.
At least two command-level volunteers, a captain and a lieutenant, remain active with the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department, Bulla said, but the long-term future of volunteers at the station is uncertain. Whatever the outcome, both Bulla and Graham pledged fire and rescue service is and will continue to be provided to residents within the Burtonsville department's service area.
"Fire rescue services are continuing to be provided out of that station, there is no reduction in service to those residents," Bulla said. "The question is over whether, moving forward, county career firefighters will be required to staff that station, likely at great cost, [in lieu of volunteers]."
Graham was equally adamant, adding if need be, career firefighters would be available to staff the department if volunteers chose not to return to service at the station.
"We have resources in and around the Burtonsville area that we are able to utilize if necessary, but the volunteers, they're still coming in as of this point," he said. "We're still very early into this situation."
Ryan declined to comment on the ongoing situation regarding the future management of the Burtonsville department when reached for comment Monday, but he did speak briefly regarding the difficulty he faced in choosing to resign.
"I was born and raised in Silver Spring, and I've been a volunteer with the fire department since 1987," he said. "To be put in a position where I can't continue to do that ... is very upsetting, it's very disruptive."
Ryan has said in the past the career firefighters association regularly attempted to wrest control of volunteer resources from the volunteer association but were not successful until county volunteer firefighters lobbied against County Executive Isiah Leggett's (D) proposed ambulance fee, which would have charged for ambulance rides in Montgomery County.
Volunteers argued the fee would have dissuaded residents from calling for emergency services in certain situations. Leggett and career firefighters said the fee only would have charged insurance companies for ambulance rides.
Voters nixed the ambulance fee bill, which went to referendum, in the Nov. 2 election, but volunteers now claim the county is seeking to retaliate for the defeat.
Graham has called such claims "ludicrous."