County executive reverses ban on firefighters volunteering Unpopular directive ends

union 'ambivalent'

September 22, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After 16 months of frustration, hundreds of paid Baltimore County firefighters can again fight fires as members of volunteer companies in their home county, under a new directive from the county executive's office.

"It's a very big relief to me," said county Fire Chief John O'Neill, whose employees were caught in a dispute between their union leadership and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "The career firefighters are a great benefit to us because they take institutional knowledge and employ that at a volunteer level."

The administration issued the ban in May 1997, after the union representing about 1,145 paid firefighters accused the county of ignoring federal laws that require paid firefighters to be compensated for their volunteer work.

Those laws were created to prevent career firefighters from being coerced into working additional hours as unpaid volunteers in places with dual systems, such as Baltimore County, which has more than 2,500 volunteer firefighters in 33 companies.

But the leadership of Baltimore County Firefighters Union Local No. 1311 -- which had been tussling with Ruppersberger over a number of issues -- demanded its members be paid for volunteer firefighting or banned from it. In answer, Ruppersberger immediately imposed a ban.

Kevin B. O'Connor, union presi- dent, said yesterday the union is "ambivalent" about the reversal of the ban. Some members feel strongly they should be able to volunteer, while others "feel it's a practice that should be discouraged," he said. "Our involvement is pretty much over."

From the beginning, the ban was unpopular among volunteers and the rank and file of paid firefighters.

"It hurt us from day one," said Elwood P. "Woody" Banister, chief of the Cockeysville Volunteers. "Many times you would get a call where you had qualified people at the station, but they couldn't go, and we had to wait. That's not good service."

The removal of the ban comes after several recent federal court decisions that county officials say have changed the legal atmosphere on the issue.

The decisions -- involving the Virginia Beach, Va., and Takoma Park fire departments -- found that federal wage and overtime requirements were not applicable to volunteer services.

Ruppersberger announced the policy reversal Friday night, at an annual meeting of the county's volunteer companies at the Middle River Volunteer and Rescue Company.

He brought with him printed waiver forms that say the firefighter is volunteering for "personal, civic, charitable, humanitarian and social reasons" and not for added pay.

James Cahn, president of the Baltimore County Volunteer Fireman's Association, said "obviously we were ecstatic about the decision. When you lose over 200 of your members, that can make problems."

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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