An ongoing power struggle between career and volunteer county firefighters is so intense that the county executive may be forced to appoint a fire administrator from outside the department, county officialssay.
The factionalism among firefighters is particularly fierce in the Savage and Clarksville fire stations, where turf battles and disagreements have raged between the volunteers and career firefighters, a county transition team report says.
The report says the incoming director should have strong leadership qualities and "no ties to the Howard County Fire Department."
County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who hopes to replace retiring Fire Administrator Richard Shaw by late March, said he has not decided whether to promote from within. But the internal problems, he said, are obvious.
"The friction among the volunteers and the career people is there, and it is a great concern of mine," Ecker said. "We need to sit down and work this thing out. I'd like to see the fire service working together."
In any fire service, enmity and rivalry between thevolunteers and paid personnel is inevitable, Ecker said. But fire officials say that in recent months, the rivalry between the roughly 400 volunteers and 200 career people has gotten out of hand.
So out of hand, in fact, that the Savage firefighters -- considered to be the most vocal of the volunteer organizations -- recently opted to usedtheir own funds to buy a $350,000 fire engine.
The engine, which the volunteers say they need for expanding fire coverage, will be paid for with money they have saved over five years. Other fund-raising efforts will also be necessary to pay off the loan, which amounts to approximately $50,000 a year for the next 10 years.
One career county fire official who asked not to be identified called the purchase"a tip of the iceberg" that may prompt other volunteer members to step out on their own and operate independently of the county fire service.
But in Savage, a small community that has raised money for its fire service through Bingo nights, carnivals and direct-mail campaigns, the new fire engine is a rallying point.
"It's a piece of equipment that the volunteers can take pride in and call their own," said James Arndt, the president of the Savage volunteer company. "For once, these guys will have something they can hang their own hat on."
Savage volunteer Chief Thomas Dougherty, who along with several others wears a shirt bearing the slogan, "Savage Volunteer Firefighters -- the Unpaid Professionals," said the new fire engine symbolizes thegrowing independence of the volunteer ranks.
"We're blazing a trail for the others. No one's going to drive us out of these firehouses," Dougherty said. "We're willing to work with the career people, butwe demand that they recognize us as professionals."
Volunteers and career personnel often man the county's 10 fire stations together and perform many of the same duties during emergency calls. Career members, however, handle nearly all of the department's administrative duties.
As a result, many volunteers feel that the wheels are turning against them, since the career firefighters are always within earshot of the fire administrator's office.
Volunteers have no gripes with the quality of service provided in the integrated system, although Dougherty claims "wasted resources" abound -- such as numerous career fire commanders showing up to supervise the same fire or accidentscene.
While career fire administrators insist that an integratedsystem of volunteers and paid personnel is acceptable to them, numerous volunteers fear their jobs will be phased out.
The county has employed paid firefighters since the mid-1960s. All of Baltimore's metropolitan counties have integrated volunteer-career fire services; Baltimore City is the only department with only career members.
"We've always had some of this going on between the volunteers and the career people. It's a tough problem to stamp out," said Shaw, who willbe retiring when Ecker names the new administrator. "I'm not sure ifyou'll ever get rid of those feelings. You just try to minimize them."
Funding for the county fire department comes mainly from a firetax on residents, although volunteer stations typically raise additional money through community events and mail solicitation.
The fire tax in Howard County ranges from 16 cents to 23 cents per $100 of assessed property value, depending on the residential district.
Theadditional money raised by volunteers is a bone of contention for career personnel, some of whom argue that taxpayers needn't pay more for public safety services.
"County residents should know that it isnot necessary to dip into your pocket to give these guys donations,"said Sean Kelly, a career officer and president of the Howard Countyfirefighters' union. "Our guys (the career members) are handling 90 percent of the workload and we're funded through the fire tax."
Many residents are unaware that they pay a fire tax and will donate to the volunteers because they believe the money is needed to keep the department afloat, Kelly said.
"No service will change if you don'tmake a donation and don't have volunteers," Kelly said. "As a matterof fact, in my opinion, it would probably enhance the service."
Amajor sore spot is the county fire service's rank structure, which Dougherty and others say is unfair to the volunteers. In the structure, a career lieutenant technically outranks a volunteer captain.
Gary Unverzagt, the volunteer chief of the West Friendship station who also is a career firefighter in Baltimore County, said he is in a unique position to see both sides of the question.
"The volunteers want to keep the power in their own regime and don't want to be told what to do by someone who's not one of them," Unverzagt said. "Meanwhile, the career men are saying, 'I get paid for this, I should be in charge.' "
Howard County has its share of "renegades," Unverzagt said, and it will take a very skillful and tough-minded administrator toset policy that will make both sides agreeable. But ultimately, bothsides need to realize that they need each other, he said.
"A lot of the contention is not just one-sided," Unverzagt said. "Each side definitely has its share of problems that need to be straightened out."