Generation gap at the firehouse Annapolis firefighter: Inflammatory remark part of a divide that extends beyond race.

October 17, 1997

ANNAPOLIS' Civil Service Board may have reinstated Capt. Gene Kirchner to his job in the city fire department and cleared him of charges that he impeded the delivery of medical care and acted in a racist manner on an emergency call last July 13. Its decision, however, won't resolve a fundamental departmental problem.

As in many other fire departments, a generational fissure cleaves dTC the younger members of the unit from their superiors and has created an atmosphere of tension.

Although an offensive racial remark may have been the catalyst that prompted paramedic Ed Napoliello to file a complaint against Captain Kirchner, a pervasive and underlying conflict between young emergency medical personnel and their older superiors is at the heart of this controversy.

Part of the problem relates to the change in the nature of firefighting itself. When people of Captain Kirchner's generation joined the department, fire suppression was the primary responsibility. Most of the skills used in the difficult task of fighting fires were learned on the job. These men now run the department.

Today, with advances in building materials and smoke detectors, firefighting is not the dominant duty. Responding to emergency medical calls has increased as a major activity.

Paramedics and emergency medical technicians have more education -- in some cases, college and advanced degrees -- and more sophisticated training than the firefighters who supervise them. Many medical personnel are aggravated that they earn less than their superiors, in spite of their high level of education and training. A clash of cultures has ensued.

Many of the younger firefighters and emergency medical personnel see themselves as professionals. They believe behavior on and off the job should reflect their elevated status.

When they observe their superiors using offensive language, making derogatory racial comments and acting in a fashion unbecoming to the department, they get upset.

Sensitivity training alone will not cure what ails this department. Strong leadership that can bridge the two generations and cultures is needed to prevent a reccurrence of the unfortunate controversy with followed the July 13 emergency call.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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