Playing with fire Howard County: Timing is wrong, case unconvincing to double firefighters per truck.

November 29, 1995

TAKING RISKS IS NOT something anyone wants to do when it comes to fire protection. And yet Howard County officials claim they take risks nearly half the time a fire truck goes out on the street, primarily because only one or two firefighters are aboard. That situation constitutes not only a threat to individuals on the force, it could cause harm to residents, officials insist.

Firefighters themselves feel that up to four emergency workers should respond to a given call, a level of deployment that would require at least 60 new firefighters in Howard.

That kind of staffing, however, will not likely occur in the near future -- and probably shouldn't. Not only would it virtually assure a tax increase for the county, officials have failed to make a case for the level of risk incurred because of the alleged staffing shortage. Howard Fire Chief James Heller was unable to point to any instances where personnel or residents were injured because of the short staffing.

Sixty more firefighters would undoubtedly make it easier to respond to emergencies, but it is not the only avenue to an efficiently run fire department. Statements by the chief about wanting more staff were made to news reporters weeks ago, before the county plunged into the latest round of budget talks. We believe the chief understands now the need to be frugal and is not trying to frighten the public into supporting a large-scale recruitment drive.

In recent meetings with County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the chief has discussed other options. They include a reorganization of how engine companies are deployed and the use of more volunteers. Mr. Ecker has all but exempted the police and fire departments from the deepest of cuts, but whether he will provide funding for new staff is unknown. The executive has revised his pledge to cut 12 percent from public spending so it now will coincide with the end of his term in 1998 rather than in 1997.

As for Chief Heller's statement that by year's end he will not allow rescue workers to enter a burning building unless at least four firefighters are present, this is not a threat to win staff. It is a new mandate from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not a locally contrived proposal. Achieving that standard will not be as problematic, though, as reaching the chief's goal of four firefighters per truck.

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