Fighting fires on and off the clock Ecker should let career firefighters serve volunteer units in off-hours.

June 17, 1996

FEW THINGS of value are free. One exception to this rule, however, is the service provided by volunteer firefighters, who contribute enormously to the safety of residents in Howard County and other jurisdictions. An added bonus in Howard is the handful of paid firefighters who serve as volunteers when they are off the clock.

However, county officials threaten to prohibit these professionals from working as volunteers. They say they are concerned about lawsuits seeking overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. They point to a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring overtime pay for county employees when they work beyond normal hours.

The prospect of costly litigation is a legitimate concern, but something far more important is at stake: the community's confidence in its fire protection. Even before this issue emerged, there was reason to feel uneasy.

Two months ago, a task force appointed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker reported that many of the county's fire trucks are understaffed. It recommended the immediate hiring of 23 firefighters and 19 more next year. The task force said the county would have to spend $400,000 in the coming fiscal year to implement its recommendations and impose a 1-cent increase in the fire tax in the 1998 fiscal year.

Mr. Ecker chose to ignore his own task force's conclusions, saying he remains unconvinced of a staffing shortage. But in his delicate balancing act to remain frugal while maintaining public safety, the executive may be placing at least one community at greater risk. While only nine members of the county fire department would be affected by the decision to prevent firefighters from serving in volunteer units, five of them do so in West Friendship. County Councilman Charles Feaga, a West Friendship resident, is upset that the decision could jeopardize fire safety in the western part of the county. Also, he argues, volunteers save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

There is no guarantee that volunteers will not someday seek back pay. But while performing one of the most dangerous jobs anyone can describe on a "career day," these people are not asking for added pay (aside from a retirement plan offered volunteers.) It seems a bargain too good for the county to refuse.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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