Howard County Fire Chief Bill Goddard is proposing to eliminate funding for the department's contingent employee program beginning July 1, but members of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company believe the move is aimed solely at them.
"The only people that suffer in this is the community," said Kenny Livesay, a volunteer firefighter at the Lisbon station. "It's setting us up for failure."
The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services has used contingent employees — part-time firefighters and paramedics without benefits — for 37 years. Goddard said his decision to end the program is not directed at Lisbon, but rather running the department more efficiently with career and volunteer personnel working together.
"I'm not the least bit interested in putting people out of work," said Goddard, who will submit his annual budget, without funding for contingents, to County Executive Ken Ulman on Friday, Feb. 15.
Of the 36 contingent employees currently working for the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, 18 operate out of the Lisbon station, 17 are employed with the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department and one works with the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department.
Without contingents, Livesay said Lisbon can't be expected to have volunteers staff the station 24 hours a day to ensure ambulances are dispatched as soon as a call is received. Lisbon has 80 volunteer firefighters and paramedics in addition to its contingents. It is the only station not assigned career personnel.
"Expecting volunteers to cover what's been in place for 35 years, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," he said.
Contingent employees are required to hold the same certifications as career personnel and are paid between $14 and $18 hourly. Fire department spokeswoman Jackie Cutler said the program cost the county about $446,000 in fiscal year 2012. The total budget that year for fire and rescue was nearly $65.5 million, she said.
Goddard said he has received "no complaints whatsoever" from residents concerning the service provided by the Lisbon station.
But he said there are a number of issues that concern him about the contingent employee program, including scheduling at the Lisbon station. He pointed to a recent weekend schedule at Lisbon where only one or two contingents were scheduled a day when three are required.
In 2012, the county spent about $110,000 to pay career personnel to cover when contingents were not available, Cutler said.
Volunteer stations have for more than 35 years hired contingent employees to help supplement their staffing. But Livesay said the county has not allowed Lisbon to hire new contingent personnel over the past year and that has led to scheduling issues.
"He's setting us up for failure by not allowing us to hire," Livesay said.
Cutler said the fire department has "no reason to believe that additional contingent personnel, beyond the current 18 at Lisbon, 17 at West Friendship, is necessary."
'It's politically motivated'
Last year, Lisbon was the only fire company to oppose the county's new fire tax, which established one rate throughout the county.
Some Lisbon firefighters believe this is behind Goddard's proposal to eliminate contingents.
"To me, it's a very minute amount of money when you look at the fire department budget," said Andy Magness, an 25-year contingent paramedic now working in Lisbon. "I think it's politically motivated."
Magness, an Ellicott City resident, said he has relied on the $20,000 he earns each year as a contingent to supplement his income as a full-time paramedic in another jurisdiction.
He said he hasn't decided if he will be able to volunteer at the station without being compensated.
"I'll have to go out and find employment elsewhere," he said.
Shawn Lynch, a contingent firefighter at West Friendship, said Goddard is eliminating the program to punish Lisbon, and West Friendship is stuck in the middle.
"We feel like we're getting caught in the crossfire," he said.
Goddard said it's disingenuous for Lisbon to suggest he is doing this as retaliation.
"This discussion started before the fire tax issue," Goddard said. "It's just absolutely not true."
Firefighters union president Rich Ruehl did not return phone calls for comment.
Goddard said he plans to meet with Lisbon representatives in the next few weeks to decide how the fire company will function without contingents.
Livesay said he expects most of the contingents will not volunteer at the station after the program ends.
But he added that Lisbon is committed to funding the contingent program, with or without the county's support.
"We're going to find a way to do this," he said. We're determined."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun