Wayne Sharpe

Wayne Sharpe worked as a contingent at the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company for more than 33 years. He is now looking for another job. (Staff photo by Amanda Yeager / October 17, 2013)

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that former contingent Kenneth Crosswhite had not reapplied for a contingent position. According to the fire department, Crosswhite did reapply. 

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announced a bill last week aimed at increasing benefits awarded to the county's veteran volunteer firefighters.

Around the same time, the county's corps of contingent firefighters and emergency medical technicians quietly shrank from 34 to one.

Howard's contingents – part-time, paid firefighters and emergency medical technicians without benefits who fill gaps in volunteer and career personnel staffing – had until June 30 to reapply for their positions and meet a new set of requirements or else be phased out.

According to the county's fire department, just one contingent was rehired to continue to serve.

"They're just, little by little, eating away at the volunteer system," said Kenny Livesay, who has been a vocal opponent of the county's policies for volunteers and contingents for years. "The writing's on the wall."

Howard County Fire Chief Bill Goddard said the department's intent has always been to ensure the safety of the county's firefighters and paramedics, which he thinks should include staying up-to-date on national training standards.

Jackie Kotei, a spokeswoman for the fire department, said contingents were given ample opportunity to meet the new requirements, which included a written exam, physical agility test and background check.

According to a timeline of the contingent application process provided by Kotei, 22 of the county's 34 contingents initially submitted applications to retain their position.

Ultimately, of the three contingents who successfully met the requirements, only one returned an information packet for the background check and was rehired.

In addition to the 22 contingents who reapplied for their positions, 94 new applicants also expressed interest, but, according to Kotei, only one was qualified for the job and decided not to complete the hiring process.

Kenneth Crosswhite, one of the contingents who did not complete the process, said, "When we were hired, we met all of the standards."

Crosswhite served as a contingent in the Lisbon fire company for 14 years and works as a deputy fire chief in Washington, D.C. The county, he added, "is losing a lot of good help."

Goddard pointed out that many of the contingents dropped out of the application process of their own accord.

"From the department's perspective, we'd have been perfectly happy if all 34 of the original contingents met the standard. My concern has been very clear, and it has been with providing the citizens with a very high-quality emergency service," he said.

"As firefighters, we buy into the dangers of this job; we readily accept it," he added. "But who does not accept all those dangers are the family members... My responsibility is to set a very strong standard to make sure that they are adequately trained."

From Livesay's perspective, contingents had been doing just fine.

"When you get in the field, instincts take over," he said. "Our people have saved a lot of lives. They must be doing something right."

Livesay, a volunteer at the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Department, said losing contingents will make it more difficult for volunteers to obtain enough points to qualify for the Length of Service Award Program, or LoSAP, a benefits program for volunteers above the age of 50 who have served more than 25 years.

Responses – when firefighters and paramedics go out into the field to answer a citizen's call of distress – only count for half a point per instance. Volunteers need 50 points per year to qualify for the program. Livesay said the responses account for a good chunk of the points racked up by volunteers, and were the main reason volunteers served in the first place.

Without contingents, however, volunteers had fewer opportunities to ride in ambulances now manned by the county's career EMTs, Livesay said. Because of union rules, the county can't provide just one career worker to supplement a crew of volunteers.

Goddard said he has had "productive discussions" with the volunteer chiefs and presidents of the Lisbon and West Friendship fire companies about ensuring that the departments are fully staffed following the contingents' June 30 departure. Both companies are manned only by volunteers and the one remaining contingent.

At the West Friendship company, where the lone contingent still works, Chief Mickey Day said the contingent program had "worked well" in terms of staffing.

"We have about 65 operational volunteers whose time to volunteer is primarily in the evening and weekends, so we need additional staffing during the day," he said. However, "we're also excited that there's a new contingent policy that was put into effect."

Goddard said he is encouraging the departments to use as many volunteers as possible.

"Citizens won't see any difference whatsoever," he said.