Asthmatic firefighter fights dismissal in court

April 17, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

(TC On a wall of his apartment's living room, John Huber keeps a collection of the honors he has been awarded as a Howard County volunteer firefighter.

There's the Gift of Life award the 25-year-old Baltimore County resident received in March 1991 for reviving an elderly woman who twice went into cardiac arrest while he was taking her to a hospital in an ambulance.

There also is a certificate honoring him as the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department's most active member in 1989, when he responded to 414 service calls.

"There's nothing more rewarding than saving someone's life and getting a 'thank-you' for it," said Mr. Huber.

But Mr. Huber's dream of becoming a professional firefighter is on hold. He was dismissed in March 1990, one month after he enrolled in the training academy. He since has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Howard County alleging that he was discriminated against because of an asthmatic condition he has suffered since childhood. Officials cited his poor performance in physical fitness exercises as the reason for the dismissal.

Mr. Huber contended in his suit that the county discriminated against him because of a handicap that has no effect on his abilities, violating the federal Rehabilitation Act.

In Mr. Huber's view, the county has added insult to injury by allowing him to resume work as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic.

To win the case, Mr. Huber must prove that his asthma is covered by federal law, that he could perform the duties of a professional firefighter and that his dismissal was based solely on his condition.

He is seeking back pay and at least $50,000 in damages in his suit, filed in February 1993 and set for trial in July. He also wants to be reinstated to the academy.

Richard Basehoar, a senior assistant solicitor for Howard, disputed Mr. Huber's allegations. The county argues in court papers that Mr. Huber's asthmatic condition should not be considered a disability even though courts nationwide have ruled in favor of asthmatics in other cases.

It was at the academy that Mr. Huber had problems.

As part of the training, recruits must complete several running exercises to determine their ability to perform a firefighter's sometimes strenuous duties.

Mr. Huber said that he finished all the exercises, although court records show that he stopped running during some of them and walked to the finish line.

In one 1.5-mile race, Mr. Huber finished in 13 minutes and 2 seconds -- 2 seconds slower than the county's 13-minute standard, records say. Mr. Huber finished a 2.2-mile race in 30 minutes and 7 seconds -- eight minutes behind the class' average time.

Mr. Huber contended that the class had to run the courses in the early morning in mid-winter with only a short warm-up -- conditions that would be strenuous for anyone.

"The sole basis for terminating the plaintiff was his asthma condition," court papers say. "Nonetheless, [the county] accepted the plaintiff's services before and after his termination, so long as [the county] was not required to pay for the services."

Mr. Huber has had asthma -- a chronic disorder of labored breathing -- as long as he can remember. He said the condition doesn't worry him. He smokes cigarettes.

Mr. Huber acknowledged that twice in the late 1980s he had such serious asthma attacks he was taken to a hospital emergency room.

He said he can tell when an asthma attack may come, so he carries a pocket-sized inhaler that he breathes into to ease the condition.

But Mr. Huber said he's never had an asthma attack while working as a volunteer.

When officials discovered Mr. Huber's asthma problem, they sent him to his physician. The physician reported that Mr. Huber could "most likely" perform his duties as a firefighter as long as he continued using medication, records say.

Mr. Huber in March 1990 went to Baltimore pulmonary specialist Michael Hayes, who recommended that the county not retain Mr. Huber because his condition would pose a risk to himself and his co-workers, records say.

"It is well-known that firefighters are at risk of inhalational injuries, and it is ludicrous to put an asthmatic in harm's way," Dr. Hayes said, according to court papers.

But Howard County lawyers argue that county officials never would have hired Mr. Huber if they intended to discriminate against him because of his condition.

Mr. Huber's attorneys filed court papers suggesting that the county accommodate Mr. Huber, saying that fire officials could monitor his breathing each morning and while on service calls.

The plaintiff's filings suggest that the county let Mr. Huber stop working when problems arise.

But the county argues that the fire department would have to increase its personnel to cover for Mr. Huber in case he has to stop working because of his condition.

"There may be times he can do it," said Mr. Basehoar, a county lawyer.

"There may be times he can't. What does the county do if that happens?"

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