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News Maryland Harford County Bel Air

Length of Service Awards Program for volunteers good as is - for now [Editorial]

The plan to lower to 50 from 55 the minimum age for veteran volunteer fire fighters in Harford County to begin receiving the small pensions that have been offered for the past several years is reason for those making that decision to look before they leap. Similarly, those same decision makers should go slowly on few other modifications proposed for the volunteer firefighters' pension plan — known as the Length of Service Award Program.

At an estimated additional cost of $1 million a year to a program that already costs about $2 million a year, the Length of Service Award Program, at least initially in the big picture, isn't that costly. The program provides an incentive for people who take on the responsibility of providing emergency services in the county.

For volunteers who log enough years of service and reach the collection age, the payments come out to $300 to $450 a month. It's not enough to live on, but it's large enough to be a meaningful segment of a retirement income. That's a major component of the issue: when is retirement age? Fewer and fewer people can retire from their jobs at age 50. Fewer still are ready to walk away from a volunteer lifestyle at such a young age.

More likely than not, it's enough of an incentive to encourage the highly-trained volunteer ambulance and fire crew members to continue service rather than drift away after a few years. From a public policy standpoint, that's a good thing. We suspect the best are staying with the fire service between the ages of 50 and 55 because they believe in what they do, and are not just hanging on to collect points to get that pension. In fact, all of our volunteer fire companies have plenty of folks serving their communities way past the ages of 50 and 55.

There is an important caveat: the cost to taxpayers of maintaining the volunteer fire and ambulance service in Harford County has been increasing incrementally — and sometimes in fairly large increments — over the past few decades, and the county needs to be keeping track of whether a tipping point is reached when it makes more sense to have a paid emergency service.

At present, the fire and rescue service in Harford County is strictly volunteer. The county government pays a substantial amount for equipment, building upgrades and support – though the fire companies also have other funding sources – but the biggest expense, as with any service operation, is personnel. The county's only personnel costs with regard to fire and non-medical rescue are wrapped up in Length of Service Award Program.

The emergency medical and ambulance side of the operation – by far the busiest – is another matter entirely. The system consists of an amalgam of highly trained personnel, some of whom are volunteers, some of whom are paid by an arm of the volunteer fire and ambulance service and some of whom fall into both categories, depending on when they're responding and where. It's also important to note that a sizable portion of the money used to pay the ambulance crews who end up being paid is given by the county to the private and independent volunteer organization. Actually, it's a good deal more complicated than that, but the bottom line is taxpayers are funding a partially paid ambulance service, albeit one administered by a private organization run by volunteers.

The ambulance service issue is one that remains in flux, largely because the county and the volunteer organizations have had trouble accurately estimating costs and, from time to time, extra emergency money ends up being requested by the county.

Officials in the county government as well as in the ranks of the volunteer fire and ambulance organizations are well aware of the problems with the situation, and have been making an effort to resolve it. Only time will tell if they are able to maintain a hybrid paid-volunteer system.

The Length of Service Award Program, meanwhile, serves as a relatively low cost way of preventing the fire service from suffering the fate of the ambulance service. Ambulance crews are obliged to be medically certified at a rather high level, regardless of whether they're volunteers or part of paid crews, and relatively few people are willing to complete the rigorous training. Meanwhile, the volume of ambulance calls in Harford County has increased substantially over the years. The result was a break point about 10 years ago when the relatively few trained volunteers just couldn't keep up with the demand. As the work became more grueling, its appeal as a volunteer activity diminished greatly and some of the volunteer companies started offering financial incentives. These incentives grew into the hybrid paid service that exists today.

On the fire and rescue side, while the level of required training is as rigorous as the medical training for ambulance crews, the number of calls per week is a fraction of the number of ambulance calls in the same period, which helps to make volunteer participation at a rate of a few hours a week both productive and rewarding. The pension adds to this.

If, however, the fire service begins to go in the same direction as the ambulance service did, there will have to be wholesale re-thinking of the financial arrangement the county has with the system. Should that day ever come, the value of continuing the Length of Service Awards Program isn't likely to be what it is now when the volunteer component is strong.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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