Ecker Must Put Out The Fire HOWARD COUNTY

September 30, 1992

Howard County Executive Charles Ecker's failure to address long-simmering feud between the county's volunteer and professional firefighters is at least partly to blame for the embarrassing and damaging situation the county now faces.

Howard residents have been subjected almost weekly to a litany of scandals about their fire departments, most of them centering on the Savage Volunteer Fire Company. It began when a member of the company was arrested on rape, kidnapping and assault charges involving two women. The same volunteer had been previously convicted of battery but was quickly reinstated to active duty and allowed to go out on emergency calls.

The decision to reinstate the volunteer was made by those in charge of the Savage company, apparently without informing higher-ups among the professional ranks of fire and emergency workers. Now, in light of his most recent arrest, the volunteer has been belatedly dismissed.

Painful as it was, the situation didn't end there. Last week, the chief of the Savage company was charged with assault and disturbing the peace after he allegedly threatened a spokesman for the county's professional firefighters during a heated outburst.

More than just offensive, all of these incidents underscore just how the historic conflict between Howard's volunteer and professional firefighters hampers both groups' effectiveness. Their long-standing feud over turf, money and egos has broken down the lines of communication and blurred the lines of authority. The public would be justified in lacking confidence in the operation.

Mr. Ecker has known about these frictions for some time. A task force he appointed to find solutions only recommended more study. That should not be an excuse for inaction.

Mr. Ecker needs to show leadership on this matter immediately. So far, he has decided to appoint a committee to explore whether personnel action is warranted in the sordid affair involving the now-dismissed volunteer. That is a good step, but not enough.

Unless something is done to address broader issues and end the rift between volunteers and professionals, confidence in this essential public service will wane.

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