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Posted at 12:36 PM ET, 12/28/2010

Pr. William names interim fire chief

By Jennifer Buske

A former Prince William County fire official will lead the Manassas Fire and Rescue Department until Manassas officials can find a permanent replacement for the city's first fire chief, Michael L. Wood, who recently resigned amid turmoil in the department.

Dale McCleese, a retired fire and rescue battalion chief from Prince William, will lead the department for roughly four months while Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes conducts a nationwide search for a new chief, city officials said Tuesday.

"Chief McCleese has just the right balance of leadership and experience to work with our fire and rescue personnel and our volunteer and regional partners," Hughes said.

Wade House, a former chief and president of the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company, has been appointed to interim assistant fire and rescue chief to help see through this transition, Hughes said.

Wood was hired two years ago to lead the newly created Manassas Fire and Rescue Department. He announced in mid-December that he would resign by year's end because of various issues with the department, including an ongoing dispute between some volunteer and career members who continue to disagree on the future of the city's fire and rescue system.

"I really think the structure here is inefficient and predisposes our personnel and community to unnecessary risks," Wood, 49, said. "I've attempted for greater than two years to try and remedy those deficiencies, but unfortunately there is a strong desire to fight change."
There is still no strategic plan for the fire and rescue system, which includes paid staff as well as the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company and the Greater Manassas Volunteer Rescue Squad, because of pushback from some volunteers, Wood said, noting he has had a good relationship with the volunteer rescue squad.

Wood also said the structure of the system gives him responsibility and liability but no mechanism to influence or manage change.

Wood was hired after city officials decided to upend tradition and create a city department. Because not everyone was seeing eye-to-eye on the future of the new organization, the city council stepped in, passing an ordinance in January that gave Wood control of day-to-day operations but not final say on policies and procedures. Instead, a public safety committee with four volunteers, two career staff members and a nonvoting council member votes on policies.

Some city and fire and rescue officials have said they were not surprised by Wood's departure, as they have seen the struggles he has gone through to unite the three organizations. Some volunteer fire officials, however, have said they were caught off-guard by his resignation.

"I wasn't surprised with chief Wood's decision," Manassas City Council member Jonathan Way said, noting that he doesn't think public safety will be impacted. "He had an extremely difficult challenge to blend [the departments] and he was not satisfied with the progress. It is going to continue to be a serious challenge for us."

The Virginia Department of Fire Programs is conducting an assessment of the city's fire and rescue department.

By Jennifer Buske  | December 28, 2010; 12:36 PM ET
Categories:  Manassas, Pr. William, Virginia  
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