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Fire department reform would give chief ultimate say

WOODBRIDGE — Major reforms are coming to the Prince William County Fire and Rescue Department.

After 16 months and meetings and deliberation, career and volunteer firefighters and medics appear to have a found a new model for the system that is charged with providing emergency services for the county’s nearly half a million residents.

Fire and rescue leaders told the county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday it wants to adopt a new organizational model known commonly as the “strong chief” operation, which places one person solely in charge of career and volunteer firefighters. The move would also bring with it the formation of a new fire and rescue advisory committee which would help the chief in setting policy and guidelines for the entire department to follow and would provide counsel to McGee– whose been the county’s fire chief for the past 10 years.

The move would dissolve the county’s existing Fire and Rescue Association; a body made up of both career and volunteer officers who have voting and veto powers when it comes to developing and adopting rules for the operation of the combined department.

“This will be a significant change to our fire and rescue system,” McGee told the Board of Supervisors.

A reform committee since March 2016 reviewed several municipal fire and rescue operations models in Northern Virginia and Maryland. They selected a model closest to one used in Loudoun County and added an audit and finance committee to the mix to ensure public review of the department’s spending and finances.

A new seven-member executive committee will include three volunteer fire chiefs, three career deputy fire chiefs, the county’s operational medical director in charge of EMS operations, and the county’s fire chief.

Officials, both volunteer, and career say the old Fire and Rescue Association “outlived its usefulness,” and that a new system with “more teeth” is needed to uphold rules, and enforce policies, procedures, and compliance for the entire department.

In the past, volunteers, who work nights, weekends, and holidays, have been at odds with career staff, who work weekdays for everything from equipment usage, staffing issues, to adhering to departmental policy.

“We’re not going to get anywhere forward without letting the past go,” said Yorkshire Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department Chief Jerry Deem.

McGee told Potomac Local he plans to serve in the newly appointed role as county strong chief. He has 37 years of service under his belt, with no plans for retirement, he added.

Sources told Potomac Local that volunteers would have more support for fire and rescue reform if McGee was not appointed to the role. Many feel McGee has long favored career firefighters, especially when it comes to making required training opportunities available to volunteers.

Many classes at the county’s training academy are offered only during weekdays when volunteers work full-time jobs, we’re told. Occoquan District Supervisor Ruth Anderson asked if these reforms would address the unmet training needs of volunteers, however, those details have not yet been worked out.

The reform is expected to pass after a public hearing on the matter at the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 1, 2017.

Overall, volunteer fire companies will be able to maintain their independence under the new system, as many own the property on which their stations sit, and can raise money for discretionary purchases such as new fire trucks. That’s only if they follow the rules set forth under the new system — rules that aren’t expected to be written until the fall.

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