Howard County volunteer firefighters said Monday that they were hopeful they could come to an agreement soon after running into some stumbling blocks over a new benefits package offered by the county.
The firefighters came to the County Council’s monthly meeting to testify on a bill that would increase the monthly benefit paid to volunteers once they reach the age of 50 and have attained at least 25 years of active service. But they are concerned that some new requirements would make it difficult for long-term volunteers with less than 25 years of service to get the full scope of benefits down the road.
The benefit is called the Length of Service Award Program, a monthly stipend created to reward volunteers with a history of service in the county. Currently, LoSAP payments are $250 a month. The new bill would nearly double the payment to $459 a month, or 1 percent of the starting salary of a firefighter trainee. According to Howard County officials, this would be the highest benefit offered to volunteer firefighters in the state.
For every year of service above 25 years, volunteers could qualify for an additional $10 a month.
However, in order to get the extra payment, volunteers must maintain “current minimum operation requirements,” according to the bill. Volunteers said this was unrealistic for older firefighters and EMTs who still want to contribute but can no longer ride the engines.
“Training is very important, there’s no doubt about it,” said Julianna Casey, president of the Howard County Volunteer Firemen’s Association. But, she said, long-term volunteers who had not expected to have to continue to maintain their operation requirements felt short-changed.
Ivan Betancourt, who has volunteered for 18 years, said he didn’t know whether he would have the time to maintain the necessary certifications in his later years.
“If I’m also active administratively, where I no longer have to jump in a fire truck… I no longer have to get my HAZMAT certification, I no longer have to have confined space, I no longer have to have my EMT card because I’m not riding this apparatus anymore, but I’m still active administratively, that doesn’t mean I’m not providing a service to our community as I used to when I rode a piece,” he said.
All of the firefighters who testified said that many older volunteers help out at the station in administrative positions.
Fire Chief Bill Goddard said he would be proposing several amendments to the bill, including one that would grandfather in all volunteers who currently have 25 years of service. They could receive the yearly increase without having to meet operation requirements, he said.
Goddard, who proposed the benefit increase and the change in requirements, said the bill was intended to “[recognize] the hardworking women and men who serve as volunteer first responders and ask for nothing more than to serve.” He said the language in the current bill was unclear at times, and he wanted to fix it.
“Since this bill was introduced there were some technical questions raised that still need to be addressed,” he said. “We hope to have this done in the days ahead.”
Casey, Betancourt and Terry Thompson, former president of the Volunteer Firemen’s Association and a volunteer with more than 42 years of service, said they hoped to get Goddard and the county to agree to lowering the baseline for the years of service required to be grandfathered in to the yearly benefit increase.
Casey said she would like to see all current volunteers grandfathered in. Thompson suggested including all “vested members” with five years of service or more.
“I know that’s not what some people want to hear, but it is a compromise,” he said.
Council members said they would discuss the bill at their monthly work session on Monday, Oct. 28. Other changes in the bill include a $5,000 burial payment to survivors of deceased volunteer firefighters, as well as six months of LoSAP payments for surviving spouses.