Dousing flames in Howard County

February 04, 1993

It may seem to be only a simple restructuring, but Howard County Executive Charles Ecker's proposal to change the way resources are allocated to the county's fire departments is a bold move that has already caused rumbling within the quarreling ranks of the department.

In the bill he sent to the County Council recently, Mr. Ecker never stated it, but surely intended to bring the county's separate volunteer and career fire stations in line under one umbrella. It is a politically daring move in light of the fact that volunteer firefighters have closely guarded their semi-autonomy from the county administration when it comes to spending.

In fact, past audits have shown a certain looseness in accounting practices within some volunteer companies. Mr. Ecker's bill could put an end to that.

In addition, the county executive's proposal would consolidate six fire districts into two. Part of the reason is to create some equity in the way county fire taxes are applied. Currently, there are six separate fire taxes; in some areas, residents get a greater level of service for less money than residents in other areas pay.

Shrinking the number of districts to two could have the added benefit of producing more camaraderie between volunteer and career firefighters, the administration hopes. Having career and volunteer companies funded from only two pots decreases the number of battle lines and may foster a better working environment.

The current, fractured situation became untenable long ago. A level of resentment and friction between the two sets of firefighters has been evident for years, over everything from resources to regulations.

The discord reached new heights last year, when a volunteer was arrested and charged with kidnapping, rape and battery, further weakening the respect between career and volunteer firefighters. That incident was followed by one in which a volunteer fire chief was accused of assaulting a professional paramedic.

All of this has fanned controversy for the Ecker administration. It is good to see that attempts are being made to douse the flames. One day, perhaps, the administration will finish the job by imposing only one fire tax or funding departments through general resources. That would truly signal that firefighters have gotten past the days of turf battles and ancient animosities.

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