Over half of Howard firefighters hold 2nd jobs Chief sees no danger to public safety

November 26, 1995|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,SUN STAFF

At a time when there are widespread complaints about understaffing in the Howard County Fire Department, more than half of its fire and rescue workers say they work second jobs to make ends meet.

Howard County Fire Chief James Heller said the jobs pose no danger to public safety, and workers say the skills actually make them more effective. Howard Chief Executive Charles I. Ecker said he sees nothing wrong with public employees taking second jobs.

Firefighters' 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off shifts have allowed them to be part-time carpenters, high school basketball coaches, barbershop owners, landscapers, roofers and dump truck drivers.

Nationally, second jobs are common among firefighters, whose long shifts mean that they get several days off each week, national union officials said.

In Howard, about one-half to three-fourths of the department's 206 career firefighters work second jobs, Chief Heller said.

Although some nearby jurisdictions require official approval of second jobs, Howard County officials said firefighters are free to work elsewhere if the job doesn't make them too tired to perform their duties. None of Howard's firefighters have ever been prohibited from doing so because of fatigue or for other reasons, Chief Heller said.

Howard County Firefighter Jim Dwyer prints checks at a Columbia stationery company -- a job he had before becoming a firefighter and that he kept "to help pay the bills."

He leaves his firefighting job at 7 a.m. and has about 20 minutes to get to his eight-hour shift at the printing company.

"It can be a little rough, especially if my sleep is interrupted by an emergency call," he said. "Most people get up and go home. I get up and go to another job."

Rank-and-file firefighters make $24,514 to $48,740 a year. But only 30 percent live in relatively affluent Howard County. Many of the rest say they can't afford housing in Howard, county officials said.

Mr. Ecker said many other professionals, including "police, schoolteachers and a lot of people work two jobs" to support the lifestyle they want. He said the county's main concern is staying competitive with fire departments in nearby jurisdictions.

Fire union officials say yearly salaries for departments in the region are similar, but Howard employees are paid less per hour and therefore have to work more hours per week to get the same pay.

Ironically, the move by many firefighters to second jobs comes at a time when the department is feeling staffing shortages.

Mr. Ecker said county officials had considered allowing firefighters to work overtime to alleviate the shortages, but altering work schedules would be too costly.

And Chief Heller said the department doesn't have a lot of money for overtime. "The fiscal well has a bottom," he said. "We manage overtime carefully."

So for extra income, firefighters turn to a variety of second jobs:

* Phil Blaney, of Woodstock, does framing and trim work for a contractor -- part-time skills that he says enable him to judge a building's stability before it could collapse on firefighters.

* Louis Winston is an assistant varsity basketball coach at Dunbar High School in Baltimore. "I enjoy being a big brother to the kids, and my medical skills help out with training."

* Lt. Herman Edwards, an electronics specialist, said he started his Owings Mills-based business, New Satellite Technologies Inc., in 1985 to boost his income. "It put two boys through college," said Lieutenant Edwards, now at a higher rank with better pay. "I probably would have had to struggle."

His skills become handy when electronic problems occur in the fire station or when firefighters encounter live wires after chopping through a burning building's walls.

* "I probably have one of the toughest jobs," said Sgt. KeviHenry, a firefighter who is also president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association. "I take care of my 2-year-old daughter on my days off."

As long as the job doesn't conflict with fire duties, Howard firefighters don't have to get permission, a freedom not shared by all nearby counties.

In Anne Arundel County, firefighters have to obtain the fire chief's permission before taking a second job, said that county's deputy chief, Gary Rogers.

In Baltimore County, workers do not need approval for second jobs, but "the privilege can be withdrawn if it affects the fire job," said Firefighter Kevin O'Connor, union leader.

Howard County fire officials said they haven't had workers who let their part-time work interfere with fire and rescue work.

"Firefighters are a dedicated lot," said George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters.

"They know they have to be prepared for any event once they PTC step onto the job."

Some Howard firefighters are content to relax on their free days.

"I enjoy my time off," said Franklin Johnson, a medic who used to work a second job as a truck driver. "I like fishing and spending time with my family.

"That's not to say I don't need the extra money," he said. "But other things are more important to me now."

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