In need of firefighters Plan to hire more professionals does not address volunteer shortage.

May 04, 1998

MANY PEOPLE who live in Howard County don't realize the fire department isn't staffed entirely by career professionals. Volunteers are typically among the firefighters who respond to emergency calls. But the "customers," as Fire Chief James E. Heller likes to call them, rarely know the difference.

That's the way the chief likes it. Volunteers in Howard County must perform at the same level of proficiency as career firefighters because they are heavily depended upon. But the county is having a hard time keeping volunteers.

Most recruits are teen-agers. After a year of training, at a cost of several thousand dollars, many lose interest, go off to college or find jobs that demand more of their time. Every year, the county replaces a third or more of its core of 175 to 200 volunteer firefighters.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposed budget for next fiscal year includes money for 20 additional professional firefighters, bringing their ranks to about 225. Mr. Ecker has at times appeared unmoved by reports of some fire engines being understaffed, so it was good to see that budget item. There should be fewer instances when an engine responds to a call with only one or two firefighters.

Mr. Ecker does understand how much the county depends on volunteer firefighters.

L He has asked Mr. Heller for a plan to help reduce attrition.

The chief has sought help from the Volunteer Firefighters Association, an umbrella organization for the county's six independent volunteer groups. He hopes for solutions within a few months.

One thing needed is older recruits. Teen-agers perform well as volunteers, but the distractions for them can be great. There is a greater likelihood that a teen-ager will move on to new interests within five years.

Finding mature people who have put down roots and have the time to be a volunteer firefighter may be difficult. But the effort must be made, perhaps with incentives beyond the opportunity to provide a valuable service.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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