The need for an iron fist

November 30, 1992

County Executive Charles I. Ecker has decided that Howar will continue to have both volunteer and career fire and rescue services. He intends to spell this out in a policy statement that could be released next month.

All that will remain after the announcement is the hard job: getting career and volunteer firefighters to work together in a cohesive, professional and decorous fashion.

As it stands now, fire and rescue services in the county continue to be marred by the inability of career and volunteer firefighters to get along.

The latest evidence of that is in a Howard career paramedic's decision to continue pressing charges of assault against the chief of the Savage Volunteer Fire Company. The incident precipitating the charges is one of such obvious pettiness that it does not deserve being repeated here.

It does, however, stem from another, more serious incident in which a Savage volunteer paramedic was charged with rape, kidnapping and assault and subsequently dismissed from the company. The same man had been earlier convicted of battery, but was allowed to continue handling emergency calls.

Professional firefighters insist they never would have been treated with such leniency, and the case has become symbolic of problems between the two groups. Without some resolution of these differences, the rift could erode public trust in these vital community services.

As officials so often want to remind us, the differences between career and volunteer firefighters have historic roots that are not limited to Howard County. This history should not, however, be used as an excuse by Mr. Ecker to ignore the problem. The clashing egos of individual fire and rescue workers and the confusion and disagreement over the lines of authority may seem petty differences in the larger scheme of things, but they cannot be ignored without risking larger problems.

Mr. Ecker says his administration is working out the details of a plan that will mean improvements in fire and rescue training as well as clarification of the chain of command. To do so, he says he wants to be fair to both the career and volunteer forces.

That's a noble goal. But unless Mr. Ecker is also willing to show some iron-fisted determination, he will probably fail in restoring discipline and common sense to this fractured and unruly force. We hope Mr. Ecker is up to the task.

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