A Howard paramedic who charged the chief of the Savage Volunteer Fire Company with assault has reconsidered his earlier agreement to drop the charges.
Andrew T. Lester yesterday said he will go forward with the charges against Fire Chief Ernest W. Foster to highlight the "double standard" between the county's career and volunteer emergency personnel.
The dispute between the men erupted Sept. 22, after Mr. Lester criticized the volunteer company for permitting a member who had been convicted of assault to continue working there. Mr. Lester said a career firefighter would have been held to a higher standard.
In breaking off the agreement, Mr. Lester also accused county officials, including County Executive Charles I. Ecker, of failing to address the long-standing dispute between the two groups.
"This isn't a personal vendetta against a volunteer chief or the volunteers in general," Mr. Lester said. "This is a matter of accountability."
Mr. Lester filed the complaint in Howard District Court following a confrontation with Chief Foster at the Savage fire hall Sept. 22. The chief is charged with assault and disturbing the peace.
The county Department of Fire and Rescue Services formed a commission to investigate the incident and determine if disciplinary action should be taken against Chief Foster. The panel -- made up of five volunteer and professional firefighters -- was disbanded three weeks ago as the county worked on the agreement.
But the county should have continued with a "fair and impartial" investigation into the incident, Mr. Lester said.
"[The Foster case] is another example of Mr. Ecker hoping the differences between the volunteer and career firefighters will go away, but they won't," Mr. Lester said.
Mr. Ecker denied that he has overlooked such issues.
The executive said his staff is working on a new policy for an integrated system with volunteer and career firefighters. The policy, to be presented within a month, will cover such topics as training programs and chains of command.
"When all of these are put together, it will speak to the perceived issue of a double standard," Mr. Ecker said. "We have to find a way to work together."
Mr. Lester asserts that a professional fire chief facing criminal charges would have been suspended pending an internal investigation. But Chief Foster continued on active duty. In addition, professional firefighters face criminal background investigations before they are hired, but volunteers don't undergo the same procedure before joining a company, Mr. Lester said.
But Douglas Levy, spokesman for the Savage company, said the company questions potential volunteers on applications, requests references and checks for criminal records through the state Fire Marshal's Office.
The decision to proceed with the criminal case will only worsen the relationship between volunteers and professionals, Mr. Levy said.
"If they're backing out [of the agreement], certainly that shows the union is unwilling to work to make the situation better," he said. "That strikes us as a backward step."
Mr. Lester, who works at the Rivers Park station in Columbia, said he initially agreed to drop the charges because he was told the Savage company would find some grounds for a civil lawsuit against him otherwise.
But Chief Foster countered: "I can assure you that [neither] myself nor the Savage Volunteer Fire Company mentioned anything to him about a lawsuit. . . . We haven't made any threats to him."
The chief said it is Mr. Lester's right to proceed with the case, although the chief denied any wrong doing in the incident. "I'm just sorry he couldn't come to an amiable conclusion," Chief Foster said. "I think he's making a mistake."
In the case, Mr. Lester accused the chief of charging toward him with his fists raised on Sept. 22, court papers say. Chief Foster was restrained when Alan Grimes, president of the fire company, pulled him away in a "bear hug."
Mr. Lester said in the complaint that Chief Foster confronted him over the "media circus" surrounding the second arrest of a former volunteer paramedic and firefighter.
Following the Sept. 4 arrest of the volunteer, James Scott Botschen, who was charged with rape, Mr. Lester issued a statement saying it was "unexcuseable" that the company permitted Botschen to remain with the organization after he had been convicted of assault in January.