County firefighters have begun a cash fund that will provide emergency money for fire victims who have been put out of their homes -- or their cars.
The union representing the firefighters has kicked off what it hopes to be an annual fund-raising effort by promising that a percentage of the contributions will go toward buying used cars for needy victims of car fires.
"We're not talking about a Lincoln Continental here, but I think we might be able to help out someone by supplying them with a modest replacement vehicle," said M. Sean Kelly, the president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association.
Kelly, who recently took over as union president, has taken a profit-intensive approach to raising money for what he says is a much-needed relief fund.
No dollar amount has been targeted for the fund-raising drive, which will conclude Dec. 21.
Money from the fund drive will go into a general fund earmarked for fire department use, but the union is drawing up guidelines that would enable the money to be used for emergency purposes, Kelly said.
With more than 30 car fires in the county last year, Kelly said it has become apparent that people suffer hardship not only when they are displaced from their homes, but also when they lose their cars.
"Some people are dependent on their car. It's a shame when someone on social security or a fixed income loses a vehicle they need and they can't replace it," Kelly said. "We want to be able to fix them up with something."
Part of the contributions will go toward paying lodging expenses for victims forced out of their homes.
A "Firefighters Hardship Fund" will also set aside money for fire department members whose families have suffered through medical emergencies.
The firefighters union has hired Beach Promotions, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based publicity firm, to coordinate the fund-raising effort, which is only the second to be undertaken by the union.
County residents will be contacted by telephone and asked if to contribute to the cash drive by purchasing advertisements in the county firefighters' yearbook, which will be published for the first time in January.
Advertisements in the yearbook will sell at prices ranging from $5 to $1,000.
Kelly said the idea is profit-minded in an attempt to raise money for disaster-related needs that typically carry high price tags for area American Red Cross agencies.
Approximately 10 county families are burned out of their homes each year, said Michael Gearhart, a county fire department spokesman. In most of those cases the relocation efforts are referred to the Red Cross, which assists the victims, Gearhart said.
Firefighters expect that they will be able to provide no more than the cost of a week-long stay at an area hotel, after which it is hoped that the victims' family members and insurance companies will have assisted them in finding permanent housing.
The fund drive, the emergency relief money and the yearbook are all new ideas that Kelly hopes will catch the attention of county residents, many of whom know little about their community firefighters, he said.
"We want to make our mark on the community," said Kelly, who said some residents are still under the belief that the county fire department is comprised solely of volunteers.
"If we can get this new program off the ground, I think people will notice us more."
The idea for the firefighters hardship fund grew out of a need realized recently when a firefighter's wife died of cancer after a one-month stay in an area hospital, Kelly said.
During that month, the fireaefighter's medical bills were compounded by hundreds of dollars worth of child care costs, Kelly said.