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Ambulance crew union adds new level of complexity to Harford emergency operations

FiresInternational Association of Fire Fighters

The already complex negotiations over how fire and ambulance service will be managed in Harford County in the future became a bit more complicated in recent weeks, after a union representing the county's 50-plus paid ambulance responders gave notice those personnel will be obliged to pay union dues of $20 a month.

The dues requirement comes as a result of the union recently agreeing to a contract with the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Foundation, a publicly funded, private organization responsible for providing supplemental ambulance service in the county, in addition to the services provided by volunteer fire and ambulance companies.

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4847, which formed more than a year ago following a narrow National Labor Relations Board vote in its favor, notified the paid, non-management employees of the Fire and EMS Foundation they must pay a $100 initiation fee and monthly dues of $20.

The requirement to pay dues in what is known as a union shop, the notice to the employees says, is mandatory under Maryland law as Maryland is not a so-called "right to work" state.

The conclusion of the notice has caused a stir in some circles of the county's fire and ambulance service: "If you do not comply with the Contract as written, you will be terminated from employment for non-compliance at the request of the Local. Your only other option, would [be] to put in your resignation at your discretion. The Local does not want to lose any employees, so we ask that you take immediate action to prevent consequences."

Union Local President Rob James said the language in the notice is largely required under Maryland law.

James said he and a few other paid members of the Fire and Ambulance Foundation's paid ambulance supplement crews took action to form a union in the aftermath of rude treatment on the part of volunteer members of the traditionally all-volunteer local fire and ambulance service.

"Employees were treated like garbage," James said Thursday. As an example, he said when paid ambulance crew members were sent to stand by at firehouses in Harford County, they would sometimes end up being banned from the premises by the volunteer members.

Asked about disputes involving paid foundation members and volunteers, Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for the Harford Fire and EMS Association, which manages the foundation, said he had not been made aware of any specific instances of banning paid crews. With regard to the dues requirement, the management of the foundation doesn't have any involvement, Gardiner said.

Further complicating the relationship between the local private and independent fire and ambulance service and its paid ambulance responders is that many people who serve in a volunteer capacity in Harford County are paid members of government-run fire companies in Baltimore County, Baltimore City and other metro counties, James said. Many are members of other International Association of Fire Fighters locals elsewhere in the state, even as they are also members of the leadership of Harford County's private fire and ambulance organization, James explained.

For decades, Harford County's ambulance service was provided by roughly a dozen fire and ambulance companies serving the county and neighboring areas, but beginning in the late 1980s, it became evident that the demand for emergency ambulance service was outstripping the ability of the volunteer organizations to keep up.

More than a decade ago, Harford's volunteer fire and ambulance companies began experimenting with hiring paid staff to run ambulance calls at busy stations at busy times of day. The system evolved into the Fire and EMS Foundation with its staff of 50 to 60 emergency medical personnel.

Though it is a private arm of the volunteer fire and ambulance service, the foundation receives substantial county government funding. Robert Thomas, spokesman for the county, said the foundation was budgeted to receive for $2,247,814 in the fiscal year that closed June 30, 2012. There was a $400,000 shortfall, however, and the county increased its total funding to $2,647,814 through a supplemental appropriation, Thomas said.

In the current fiscal year, the county is providing another $2,647,814 to the ambulance service run by the foundation, Thomas said in an e-mail, noting that the foundation's budget request for the next fiscal year that starts July 1 is $2,977,814.

The county funding, plus any other funding provided by the private fire and ambulance companies, pays for ambulance crews to staff emergency response areas served by the Level, Darlington and Whiteford volunteer fire companies, as well as the Havre de Grace Ambulance Corps. The foundation also maintains and staffs two emergency chase vehicles that provide ambulance crew support to volunteer service ambulances, mostly serving the northern reaches of Harford County, plus Havre de Grace, according to James.

The foundation also provides funding to the Bel Air and Aberdeen volunteer fire companies for supplemental ambulance crew service, but those companies' paid ambulance crews are not hired through the foundation, James said. Because the Aberdeen and Bel Air crews are not part of the foundation, they are not obliged to join the union or pay dues.

Though he remains president of the IAFF Local 4847, James has since been terminated by the Harford County Fire and Ambulance Foundation, a move he said he is contesting in Harford County Circuit Court.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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