Fire units idled to avoid overtime during exam


The Baltimore County Fire Department took nearly a third of its front-line equipment out of service Tuesday night to avoid paying firefighters overtime to cover for colleagues who were taking a promotional exam that was offered only during their duty hours.

The action angered the firefighters union and volunteer fire companies that were asked to keep units on standby or send them elsewhere to cover for county units that were taken out of service.

At least two companies, Jacksonville and Lutherville, refused to fill in. Engines from two other volunteer companies in the northern part of the county, Glyndon and Boring, were sent all the way to Middle River and Dundalk to fill manpower gaps.

About 270 firefighters, including 70 who were on duty, took the three-hour lieutenant's exam at Perry Hall middle and high schools Tuesday at 7 p.m. Those taking the exam included 70 firefighters of the 214 who would usually have been on duty, said Battalion Chief Michael T. Whittaker, a department spokesman. The test was offered at only one time and location to eliminate any possibility of cheating, he said.

The department did the on-duty firefighters a favor by allowing them to take the test during work hours, Chief Whittaker said. The public was well protected during the test, he said, because volunteer companies were asked to stand by at their station houses or to send an engine and crew to paid firehouses to fill in for the 10 idled crews. That is the same procedure used to cover the county during an emergency, he said, and the hours passed without incident.

"The fire chief and the [County Executive Roger B. Hayden] administration don't feel that the taxpayers should have to pay for firefighters to take a promotional test," Chief Whittaker said.

Kevin B. O'Connor, president of Firefighters Local 1311, said the lengths to which the county went to save a maximum of $5,000 in overtime out of a $50 million annual budget was another indication of a continuing decline in standards for the county's professional fire service.

In addition, he said, firefighters resent missing a chance at overtime pay often afforded to county police officers called in to substitute for absent colleagues, especially after nearly three years without a general pay raise. The move also increases tensions between paid and volunteer firefighters, Mr. O'Connor said.

"Choosing not to pay callback is an irresponsible position," "There's no end to what they [department administrators] come up with," Mr. O'Connor said.

Michael Huber, captain of the Lutherville Volunteers, said the problem is a Fire Department budget that is too small.

"They're just not getting the funding," he said.

His company refused to help out, he said, because the general policy agreed upon by volunteer companies is to fill in only "for fires or funerals."

Claude Gamble, chief of the Jacksonville volunteers, who also declined the county's request, said, "We have no problem in an emergency situation or [to fill in] for training," he said. "I feel for what the unions are going through."

Paul Rice, chief of the North Point-Edgemere volunteers, said his company decided to stand by because "I live here. I'll protect my community."

The Edgemere volunteer firehouse is two blocks from the county's paid station on that isolated peninsula.

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