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Future of Howard's contingent firefighter program remains unsettled

By Blair Ames, bames@tribune.com

4:00 PM EDT, April 24, 2013

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While Lisbon volunteer firefighters are moving forward as if the contingent firefighter program will remain in place come July, Howard County Fire Chief Bill Goddard said the future of the program has yet to be decided.

"We're making progress, short progress, but it's progress," Goddard said Tuesday, April 23, referring to meetings with leadership of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company.

Goddard has proposed to eliminate funding for the department's contingent employee program beginning July 1, but members of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company have said the move is aimed solely at them. Lisbon has 80 volunteer firefighters and paramedics in addition to its 18 contingents. It is the only station in the county not assigned career personnel.

Contingent employees are part-time firefighters and paramedics without benefits. They are required to hold the same certifications as career personnel and are paid between $14 and $18 hourly.

Curtis Lowrey, a Lisbon fire department member who attended the most recent meeting between Goddard and Lisbon leadership, said they were told in the last meeting that "the contingents aren't losing their jobs.

"As of July 1, they're still employed, and that's what we're telling people," he said.

Goddard said the statement that any decision has been made is a rumor, but he has no plans to make any changes to the contingent program between now and July.

What the contingent program will look like in the future is still undecided, according to Goddard.

"At this point, it's premature," he said.

Goddard has 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.

One of his concerns is adequate staffing. Goddard said Lisbon has not always been able to meet the minimum number of staff required to be on hand around the clock.

Lisbon members have countered by saying that the county has not allowed them to hire additional contingents in recent years, which leads to the staffing concerns.

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.

Goddard said he has been "very happy" with the meetings between the fire department and the Lisbon station.

There is no deadline for the two sides to reach an agreement on the future of the contingent program, but Goddard said he would like to see both sides compromise by July.

Although it is not a specific line item in Goddard's proposed budget for the fire department, he said there is funding for contingents if the program moves forward in its current format.

With or without funds from the county, Lowrey said Lisbon still plans on finding a way to fund the program if it is cut by the county.

"It's tremendous savings to the taxpayers," he said. "It would be foolish to get rid of it."

The contingent program cost the county about $446,000 in fiscal 2012, when the total budget that year for fire and rescue was nearly $65.5 million.

More than 35 Howard County residents testified March 11 at Ulman's second public hearing on the fiscal 2014 budget, most in favor of keeping the contingent firefighter program.

Kenny Livesay, of the Lisbon fire department, said he and other members also plan on attending the County Council's public hearing on the budget April 29 to show support for the contingent program.

"We're there to fight for what's right," Livesay said.