After his last day on the job as assistant chief of Loudoun’s Combined Fire-Rescue System last week, Matt Tobia looked back on four years that saw Loudoun’s fledgling combined volunteer and career system mature into an example for other systems around the country.
This week, Tobia is going to work in Harrisonburg. He came to Loudoun four years ago after already reaching retirement in another department, ending as a battalion chief in Anne Arundel County, MD, after 23 years. He was hired for a job that had never existed before in Loudoun, and he was coming into a system that had just combined its volunteer and career fire and rescue departments for the first time in the largest overhaul in its history.
He may have been the obvious choice.
“Anne Arundel County was a very mature combination fire department,” Tobia said. “They had had career and volunteer firefighters working side by side, integrated, since 1965. So they had already spent 40-plus years functioning and developing and growing as an organization.”
He came to Loudoun on the urging of his wife, and knowing little about the county. But in some ways, Loudoun resembled Anne Arundel at the time—he said while Anne Arundel had a system with about 800 career firefighters and 500 volunteers, Loudoun had about 500 career firefighters and 800 volunteers.
“There was really no roadmap to follow,” Tobia said. “When I came in, Chief [W. Keith] Brower was really mindful of that, and he said make it the position that you can make it and focus on building the relationship of the combination fire-rescue department.”
He arrived shortly after Loudoun brought together its volunteer and career fire-rescue systems to create today’s Combined Fire-Rescue System. When he arrived, he said, there was a lot of anxiety about whether a combined system could work in Loudoun, with people on either extreme claiming it would be the end of the volunteer or career system in Loudoun.
“I’ve been extraordinarily blessed to have the opportunity to travel all over this country and see a lot of fire-rescue departments. This is the single most functional combination career-volunteer system in America, it really is, and that’s a tribute to the people who are in it,” Tobia said. “It is not a reflection of me as an individual, it is a tribute to the people who are in it, because they’re dedicated to working together. There are other places in America where career and volunteer firefighters are actively working against each other.”
Antagonism between career and volunteer firefighters is common in combined systems, and even in Loudoun’s there is tension. But Tobia said in Loudoun, firefighters don’t let that dictate their relationship. And he said no volunteer fire-rescue station has ever been forced to take on career staff. “The presence of career personnel in any fire-rescue station in Loudoun County that is a volunteer station has been at the request of the volunteer company,” he said.
But as a longtime employee and leader of fire-rescue systems with both volunteer and career personnel, he said he understands where the tension comes from, and it has roots in the very founding of the country.
“This country was founded on self-determination, first and foremost—the idea of being able to be in control of our own destiny,” Tobia said. “That is the underpinning of our country. It is so ingrained in everything that we do and everything that we are as a country that it is unconscious to us.”
For firefighters, he said, their job is a big part of their personal identity. Volunteers, he said, identify themselves as being the keepers of safety for their community.
“People know me as a firefighter,” Tobia said. “In the community that I grew up in, that I was volunteer in, they knew me as a volunteer firefighter, and there is a pride that comes with that title, and that connectivity, because it signals that we are willing to do things that other people aren’t willing to do, which is place ourselves between harm and other people.”
But that also means that anything perceived as threatening that status is deeply personal to any firefighter.
“The presence of career firefighters, as appropriate as it may be to ensure the safety of our citizenry at all hours of the day, is seen as having a thwarting effect on that identity,” Tobia said. “It’s perceived that it marginalizes and relegates volunteers to a different status than they would have if there were no career firefighters.” He said it comes with a misperception that volunteers have the moral high ground, because they are not paid, or that career firefighters are more competent or highly-trained because it is their profession.
But, he said, he knows volunteers “who I would put up against any career firefighters any day of the week.” And he pointed out that career firefighters often start out as volunteers, and don’t just do it for money—“career firefighters, equally, are not doing this for a paycheck, because none of them get paid enough to live in Loudoun County. A firefighter wage in Loudoun County is not a liveable wage for Loudoun County.”
And when Loudouners call 911, he said, they don’t know whether they’re getting volunteers or paid staff.
“When they call 911, professionals—not paid professionals, not volunteer professionals—professionals respond quickly, provide world-class service and are nice,” Tobia said. “Those are the cornerstones of being a part of this system, and no one in this system tolerates individuals who aren’t committed to that.”
He said the department also enjoys the support of its Board of Supervisors and County Administrator Tim Hemstreet.
“I do not know another fire chief who enjoys the level of support that we do,” Tobia said. That can take many forms—whether through funding the department’s pace of growth or taking a stance against the Virginia Association of Counties in supporting a bill to expand workers’ compensation measures around cancer for firefighters.
But now, it’s time for him to move on.
“This, literally, is a once-in-a-lifetime job. Nobody else has the opportunities that we have here to help build something and really make it special, which it is,” Tobia said. “As important as that is, as affirming as that is, it’s not as important to me as knowing the people that I work with.”
In Anne Arundel, after a lifetime spent in the department, Tobia said he knew almost everyone. In Loudoun, he still meets firefighters under his command he’s never seen before. So he’s leaving for Harrisonburg, the first time he has worked for an all-career department, and where there are fewer than 100 firefighters.
“When you move into an executive leadership position, you will become responsible for having to have the impossible task of having to go somebody’s family’s home one night, and potentially tell them that their loved one isn’t coming home, because there are risks associated with being in this profession,” Tobia said. “If I’m ever going to be in that incredibly difficult position, I want to be able to say that I knew the people.”