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For one contingent EMT, time runs out in Lisbon

By Amanda Yeager, ayeager@tribune.com

10:30 AM EDT, October 18, 2013

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Wayne Sharpe worked as a contingent at the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company for 33 years and seven months. He's been a volunteer paramedic for even longer. But now, he's on the hunt for a new job.

Though he still volunteers at the Lisbon station, Sharpe, 56, says a new Howard County policy for contingent firefighters and EMTs is the reason he decided to leave behind his paid contingent gig of about $30,000 a year.

Contingents are part-time paid firefighters and EMTs without benefits who help staff stations when there aren't enough volunteers or career personnel available. They earn between $14 and $18 an hour. Only two Howard County stations — Lisbon and West Friendship — have contingents; the rest are staffed by volunteers and full-time employees.

Under the new policy, contingents had to submit a new application to the county for their position and meet the same set of standards as entry-level career firefighters and EMS employees.

Among these requirements are 11 course certifications, including vehicle and machinery technical rescuing, hazardous materials training, weapons of mass destruction awareness and FEMA training.

"Safety is and has always been one of my top priorities," Fire and EMS Chief Bill Goddard said in a statement about the new requirements. "Our personnel are put in very physically demanding, high-risk situations when they respond to an emergency. Contingent firefighters need to meet these requirements so they too can safely provide the best service possible to Howard County residents."

But Sharpe and some of his fellow contingents in Lisbon believe the new requirements have more to do with politics than safety. They say their fire station is being singled out after opposing a fire tax supported by Goddard last year.

"I wholeheartedly agree that there's training we have to take," Sharpe said. "But every time you turn around, it's another hurdle."

Earlier this year, Goddard proposed to cut the contingent program altogether, saying at the time that he wanted to make the fire department more efficient by using just volunteer and career personnel.

He dismissed allegations that examination of the contingent program was politically motivated.

"This discussion started before the fire tax issue," Goddard told the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times in February. "It's just absolutely not true."

After spirited testimony, the county decided the program could stay, on the condition that contingents meet stricter safety requirements.

The county posted job ads and began to accept contingent applications Sept. 6. The application period closed Sept. 20.

Sharpe said he took issue with being asked to submit an application for a job he's held for three decades: "Why are the contingents and the EMS people the only ones in Howard County to have to reapply for their job?"

But fire department spokeswoman Jackie Kotei said the application was more of a statement of intent for contingents interested in continuing their jobs. She stressed that those who had said they wanted to continue were not fired.

"It was just a way to create a process around getting them up to speed and signaling their intent," she said.

Contingents who expressed an interest in continuing and submitted an application will have until June 30 of next year to meet the new requirements.

Applicants will have to go through the current hiring steps for an entry-level firefighter or EMS employee, including an entrance exam, physical agility test, background check and a physical examination meeting National Fire Protection Association standards.

"We listened to those who said we needed to keep the contingent program, and these changes will make sure that we are in the best shape to do so going forward," County Executive Ken Ulman said in a statement about the program.

According to Kotei, a total of 116 people applied for the contingent position, including 22 of the 33 existing contingents.

Of the 11 current contingents who did not apply, she said, five had not worked any hours this fiscal year and another five had worked less than 100 hours.

When Sharpe found out about the new requirements, he was on a cross-country vacation. Throughout September, he said, he worked with a three-hour time difference between east and west as he tried to figure out what to do.

A letter dated Sept. 30 told him he had to choose between his volunteer and contingent position by Oct. 7, or else he would no longer be eligible to be a contingent. Sharpe missed the deadline.

"It's just very disheartening to think that I've dedicated myself and this is how you get treated for that dedication," he said.

Sharpe said he will continue to volunteer at Lisbon, although once he finds a new job, he expects his hours will be more limited.

"These are my people, this is my community. I'm going to continue volunteering and serving these people, but it's going to be limited now, because now I have to go and find employment somewhere else," he said.