City calls for creation of volunteer fire chief position

The Frederick News-Post

FREDERICK, Md. — County Commissioners President Blaine Young is urging the creation of a $115,000-per-year position for a division director to act as chief over Frederick County's volunteer fire service.

The need for a liaison between county officials and volunteer stations has become clear in the year since commissioners overhauled the entire fire service and placed volunteer and career personnel under a single chain of command, Young said. To the chagrin of many volunteer firefighters, last year's restructuring eliminated the director position that dealt directly with the volunteer fire and rescue service, and Young now acknowledges the decision was a mistake.

At the time, officials said the new fire chief and two deputy chiefs could act as contact points for volunteers. But Young said the volunteers have missed having their own representative among the system's top brass.

"When you create a plan, you see what's successful and what's not successful, and this is an area that needs far greater attention than we're giving to it," he said. "I fully agree that we made a mistake and misjudged the situation at the time."

Establishing a division director for the volunteers would not simply resurrect the eliminated position, Young said. While the old position reported to the county manager, the new division director would be appointed by the county's elected leaders and serve at their pleasure.

Young has suggested filling the new opening with Clarence "Chip" Jewell, currently the county's bureau chief of emergency communications. Young said he will ask fellow commissioners to support his plan at Thursday's board meeting.

Jewell served as the county's go-between for the volunteer service in 2003 and was one of four finalists last year to lead the county's fire and rescue system, a job that ended up going to Chief Denise Pouget. Because of Jewell's experience and his deep roots in the county's volunteer fire service, he would be a natural choice for the new post, Young said.

"This position is going to be the eyes, the ears, the voice and the conscience of the volunteers and will be present during all meetings with the Division of Fire and Rescue Services," Young said.

Young wrote a Tuesday email to the volunteer firefighters describing his plan to hire Jewell and asking them for feedback.

Eric Smothers, president of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said he'd welcome the new position to streamline communication with the county. Since Smothers has a full-time job, daytime fire service meetings sometimes conflict with his schedule, but a division director could make sure the volunteers are represented in all of these conversations, he said.

Smothers said Jewell is a good candidate for the position and would bring a wealth of knowledge.

But the association president said he would have liked more transparency in crafting and seeking candidates for the proposed job. News of Young's proposal only reached him earlier this week, and Smothers said he thinks commissioners should open the new post to applicants rather than immediately assigning it to Jewell.

He noted that the elimination of the director position last year also caught the volunteers off guard.

"It's clear that they're pulling the strings from downtown," Smothers said.

Filling the new position could take 60 to 90 days if the county goes through the advertising and interviewing process, Young said, and he believes the need for a volunteer chief is too pressing for this delay. In addition, the executive board of the volunteer fire association voiced unanimous approval for creating the position and moving Jewell into the role, Young said.

Commissioner Paul Smith said he's mindful of the budgetary consequences of creating the new position.

"I'm not convinced yet that the budget warrants creating a position of that salary," he said. "If we eliminated that very position a year ago, why do we need it now?"

Smith has suggested spending about $25,000 on a lobbyist or attorney who could represent the volunteers at meetings. While he is open to Young's plan, Smith said he'll need to see more justification for it.

Jewell now earns $109,485 annually, so he would get a raise of roughly $5,500 by stepping into the new position. Doug Orner, former director of the office of volunteer fire and rescue services, made about $89,490 when commissioners did away with his position last year, according to county human resources staff.

The bulk of the money for the division director position will come from the budgetary savings that the Division of Fire and Rescue Services has achieved under Pouget's leadership, Young said. In addition, Jewell's replacement in emergency communications will likely earn a lower salary, Young said.

The addition of a volunteer chief would not disrupt the existing chain of command in the fire service, and Young said the system as a whole would still answer to Pouget.

Jewell has spent 45 years as a volunteer in the Libertytown Volunteer Fire Department and is a life member of Junior Fire Co. in Frederick, he said. Moving the volunteer system forward will mean focusing on recruitment and retention and coordinating programs so all stations are on the same page.

"We want to make sure we are all working together to meet the same goals and objectives," Jewell said in a Thursday phone interview.

Young asked for feedback from the volunteers as he took stock of the fire service one year after the restructuring, he said. Many responses expressed the desire for volunteer service to have a greater role in county government and in making systemwide decisions, Young said. Appointing a volunteer chief should help give the volunteers a stronger voice, he said.

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