Prince William has a long and proud history of citizen engagement in our government. This includes the 600 men and women who serve as volunteers in the Prince William County Fire & Rescue System, who receive the same training and certifications as their paid counterparts in the Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue. That history may be coming to an end with recent changes to the volunteer departments’ chains of command.
A recent policy interpretation, dubbed 5.1.29, which deals with “daily operational oversight chain of command,” relegates volunteer fire departments to battalion level and flattens their internal reporting structure, collapsing four levels of volunteer leadership into one. While Section 4.5 of the county’s overarching policy acknowledges the value of volunteers maintaining their internal rank structures, the new rule has the opposite effect. Given the current fire chief’s interim status, and the massive change underway with implementation of a new 56-hour workweek for paid first-responders, the decision seems ill-timed at best.
Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim McAllister issued a written appeal to the new policy in which he states:“[5.1.29 is] removing our ability to operationally run our individual departments in accordance.”
In denying McAllister’s appeal, Prince William County Executive Chris Martino affirms that the board of supervisors is authorized by the state to control all aspects of all fire and rescue services. Through the county’s recently updated ordinance restructuring the county’s fire and rescue service, known as “chapter 9.2,” the supervisors chose to implement this control through a universal “systems chief,” which combined both the volunteer and career firefighters under the command of the county’s career fire chief.
At the same time, the policy codifies the board’s commitment to maintaining a combined fire and rescue system, stating: “All members of the Prince William County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service shall enjoy operational and administrative independence from the Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue.” It also calls for an integrated chain of command between the career and volunteer departments.
The acting chief’s edict flies in the face of that board directive. While my colleagues and I granted him authority to operate the fire & rescue service on our behalf, if his actions do not match our intent, it is our duty to intercede. We cannot stand idle while an interim leader makes changes that could dismantle our volunteer fire departments, altering our community forever.
The price of losing our volunteer fire departments would extend far beyond the millions of dollars it would cost taxpayers each year. We would also lose decades of institutional knowledge and the spirit of service that our volunteer firefighters have given to Prince William for over 80 years.
I call on Mr. Martino to reverse his decision on 5.1.29, and encourage the public to contact their supervisors and the county executive’s office to demand a conversation about maintaining a collaborative, blended fire & rescue system in Prince William County.
The writer, a Democrat, is a Prince William County supervisor representing the Woodbridge District. He can be reached at email@example.com.