Howard County’s fire and rescue service is asking for funds to add 37 firefighters.
The goal is to ensure that nearly all of the department’s engines will carry a minimum of four career firefighters at all times, the standard set by the National Fire Protection Agency, according to Chief John Butler.
The county has 453 career personnel. Five of the county’s 12 stations are solely manned by career firefighters and the others use a combination of volunteer and career personnel.
“This is a big advance for us in Howard County,” Butler said. “We’ve been conservative for a long time, we’ve tried to be frugal both financially and otherwise, but we’re realizing that we’ve been behind for a while when it comes to staffing levels.”
Eighteen of the new positions would be used for a new Merriweather Post Pavilion station beginning in fall 2019.
Five firefighters would be sent to the Lisbon station and four to five personnel will each be sent to sent to the Ellicott City station on Montgomery Road, the Rivers Park station in Columbia and the Scaggsville station, according to Butler.
A new training academy class would begin in 2019. Firefighters earn $53,364 a year after they graduate from the academy.
Estimated cost of the new positions is $1.8 million, according to county budget administrator Holly Sun. The department, which also includes ambulance and paramedic services and fire marshal investigators, has a $107 million budget proposal for the next fiscal year starting July 1.
The National Fire Protection Agency standard of four crew members is based on the number of professional firefighters needed to adequately respond to emergencies for the safety of both the community and the firefighters, Butler said.
“Nobody’s in danger, but this is an improvement in staffing,” Butler said. “We have a combination system of career and volunteer firefighters, but based on the current human resource available, it’s time to grow the department a little bit.”
The department expects to be able to fill all positions. Butler said it will not put a premium on applications who are county residents.
To supplement personnel in stations that lacked full career firefighter staffing, Butler said the department has relied increasingly on overtime pay and volunteer firefighters to fill the fourth role on engines. The Ellicott City, Rivers Park and Scaggsville stations have been typically running with a minimum of three career personnel. The new hires will bring the stations up to full staffing.
At Lisbon, a station designed to run with a combination of volunteer and career firefighters, three career personnel are always on an engine and the fourth is a volunteer firefighter. In West Friendship, four career personnel are on engines from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and at night the fourth person is a volunteer.
If the County Council approves the department’s request, the Lisbon and West Friendship stations will be the only stations that will not be fully staffed with career personnel, Butler said.
“You have a small workforce and then you end up spending a lot of overtime funds to have the appropriate staffing, or you take the courageous decision and commit to minimum of four staffing and hopefully that helps your bottom line,” Butler said.