Firefighting expenditures questioned Union wants money spent on volunteers used for more hiring

Unpaid staff turnover high

County fire chief says noncareer personnel necessary in Howard

June 27, 1996|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Fire Department spends about $300,000 each year training and outfitting volunteer firefighters, but only half of them stay past three years -- prompting some to question whether the county is spending its money wisely.

Firefighters union officials say the money spent on the volunteers should be used to hire more career firefighters.

"What are citizens getting for that amount of money?" asked Sgt. Kevin Henry, president of the Howard County Firefighters Association. "Is it worth it?"

But volunteers say the money spent preparing them doesn't compare with the millions they save the county each year by working free.

"The money we save taxpayers is tremendous," said Mickey Day, chief of West Friendship Volunteer Firemen's Association Inc.

James Heller, chief of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said the county needs the volunteers. Without them, the understaffing problem at most Howard fire stations would be considerably worse, he said.

But as Howard's rural areas become even more suburban and residents' lifestyles change, recruiting and retaining volunteers has become more difficult.

On July 1, the county will begin banning career firefighters from helping out at the volunteer stations -- further eroding staffing and heightening tensions between career firefighters and volunteers. The biggest question asked by both career and volunteer firefighters is why volunteer companies are having problems recruiting and retaining members?

For more than a decade, the number of active volunteers has remained at 175 while the county's population has mushroomed.

Despite efforts by the county's six volunteer fire corporations to recruit new people, fewer citizens have shown an interest in the longtime volunteer service.

Fifty to 60 volunteers a year join the county's seven volunteer stations, located in Elkridge, West Friendship, Lisbon, Clarksville, Savage and two in Ellicott City.

But half those volunteers leave within three years, according to a study organized by John Poetker, chief of the 5th District Volunteer Fire Department in Clarksville and a volunteer there for 36 years. After seven years, 85 percent of volunteers leave.

It costs about $3,300 to train a volunteer as a firefighter. Equipment costs an additional $1,500 each.

"They leave, and we have nothing to show for it," Heller said. "You don't have any stability, any experienced people staying around."

Some career firefighters said the county could best stabilize staffing by spending the money on 10 new career positions rather than on the volunteer companies.

"We're losing an investment," said career Sgt. Edgar Shilling Jr. "We need more career firefighters. Any money they can put toward having more firefighters is needed."

Long tradition

Volunteering in Howard County has been a tradition since the first fire service was established in Ellicott City with volunteers in the late 1880s. Since then, generations of families have served as a commitment to their communities.

"Clarksville has third-generation families in its membership," Poetker said. "That's become a rarity. Without retention, long-term vision for the volunteer corporations is bleak."

Volunteer departments have taken steps -- including fund-raisers, open houses and talks in high schools -- to boost recruitment in recent years, but people don't seem to be as interested as they used to be, Poetker said.

Low recruitment and retention here are part of a national trend as a change in lifestyles and social alternatives compete for the volunteer hours on which the county relies.

Not enough flexibility

Second jobs, stress and the demands of family life hamper some would-be volunteers. Others find that their employers don't allow the f1exibility a firefighter needs to respond to emergencies.

Still others are volunteers only until they decide to apply for full-time firefighting positions.

In Lisbon, Deputy Chief Gerald Bennett said many young volunteers leave the station each year for the military, college or because they can't afford housing in the area. And the newcomers to the neighborhood these days often don't volunteer, he said.

Terry Thompson, president of Howard County Volunteer Firefighters Association, said the volunteers bring long-term benefits to the county.

"It's not hurting the county at all," Thompson said. "Otherwise they'd have to hire more career firefighters, and I don't think the county can afford to do that."

Growth of career force

As the county population nearly doubled from 1980 to 1994, the number of volunteers stayed the same. Meanwhile, the number of career firefighters nearly quadrupled.

Poetker said some of the stagnant volunteer recruitment came with that growth of the career force. "People see more career firefighters being hired and think their help's not needed," he said.

But fire officials say that is not the case. The 223 career firefighters are about 25 fewer than the fire department should have to be most effective, Chief Heller said. The stagnant volunteer pool makes the situation worse.

He hopes to sign up 100 new volunteers this year.

"In terms of the job they do and the expectations of the public, they aren't very different," Heller said. "If you're on the street having a heart attack, you don't care if employees or volunteers work on you."

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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