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Firefighter 'believed in the suit' $4 million in back pay for Arundel man, 142 other paramedics


John West was 9 when he began working overtime at the fire station.

He remembers the scream of the sirens as his call to run the half-mile from his house to the Woodland Beach station house, to monitor the radios and make coffee while the firefighters were out battling the blaze. West spent most of his free time there.

At 46, fighting fires and working as a paramedic in his native Anne Arundel County, West did an even bigger service for his friends in the fire station this week.

Believing that he and fellow firefighters trained as paramedics are entitled to overtime pay, West filed suit against the county in 1990. Monday, the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the county's appeal signaled victory and a $4 million windfall of back pay for West and 142 other paramedics.

West is an unlikely hero, who fiddles with his mustache as he speaks. He says he brought the groundbreaking suit because it "would be good for all paramedics."

"Knowing the 24-hour shifts and the fatigue that sets in, I believed in the suit," said West, who lives with his wife, Catherine, in Edgewater. "It wasn't about the money initially. But, if the law says we are entitled to money, then we are owed the money."

He took his phone off the hook late Monday because so many paramedics across the nation were calling to congratulate him.

West is uncomfortable with adulation. He says he is not "one to take credit for a whole lot of rescues" at work, either. Instead, he mostly talks about teamwork and the thrill that comes from saving a life.

Aside from the fire department, his only other job was working briefly as a corrections officer at the state prison in Jessup because his father had worked there.

Former prison officer

"At 23, the fire department came open, and I quit the prison and went to work for the fire department," said West. "It is a lot less stressful."

After a year in the department he began training to become a paramedic, because "in that line of work different things happen every day. It is unfortunate for people to have accidents, but you are always busy doing something," said West.

The high court's failure to hear the case means a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from 1996 will stand; paramedics must be paid 10 years' worth of back pay and must be paid time-and-a-half overtime after working 40 hours.

Before West's suit, paramedics in Anne Arundel County were classified as public safety workers, who, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, are entitled to overtime after working more than 53 hours a week.

West figures he'll collect about $40,000 from the suit. He hasn't decided what he'll do with the money. "Things like this don't count until the check clears," he said.

County refused to settle

West said he tried innumerable times to settle the suit, but former Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary refused. West called that decision "political arrogance."

"They were not acting in a responsible fiscal matter. These people worked hard for this money, and they were underpaid for years," said West's lawyer, F. J. Collins.

West's suit could have one other personal benefit: his son John West Jr., 23, is on the list to join the county EMS/Fire/Rescue Department.

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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