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Historic Agreement for Volunteer Firefighters

The landmark contract is hailed as the first of its kind in the nation.

Jim Seavey has seen a lot in his 30 years of firefighting. There were the four kids in Glen Echo that blew themselves up playing with a pipe bomb on New Years Eve of 1989.

“Blew the house right off the foundation,” Seavey said.

Then there was an accident on the Beltway spur in 1991, his first year as captain of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department. A gasoline tanker truck plowed into a bridge abutment and split open, spilling fuel across the road. Two cars slid through the gasoline and into the truck, igniting a catastrophic explosion that incinerated all four people in the three vehicles. The Beltway shut down from 6 in the morning for the rest of the day, Seavey said. At least 40 trucks responded to the fire, but it took an aircraft foam truck from Dulles airport to finally put the fire out.

But last week something happened that Seavey had never seen before.

The Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association and the Montgomery County Council struck a benefits agreement that is being hailed as the first of its kind in the nation. The agreement offers a package to the county’s volunteer fire and rescue workers that will improve their medical benefits and provide rigid protection from harassment that they did not have before.

“I’m pretty psyched,” Seavey said. “This contract is really a landmark.” Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, with Seavey, a volunteer, as its chief, provides fire and rescue service to much of Potomac and parts of Bethesda, including almost all river rescue operations.

Marilyn Praisner (D-at large), the president of the Council, said the deal was necessary to ensure the continued association of volunteer firemen throughout the county.

“This is a very historic deal,” said Praisner, “and it was very important to us that we got it done.”

FOR THE FIRST time Montgomery County volunteer firefighters and emergency technicians will receive a nominal reimbursement fee for their services. The compensation will range from $400 to $600 annually depending on hours logged, said Eric Bernard, the executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. The deal also provides, for the first time ever, coverage for medical expenses associated with mandatory physical examinations, and created an official disciplinary process.

“It’s more than a package, it’s a collectively bargained agreement and it gives [volunteer firefighters and emergency technicians] benefits that we’ve never had before,” said Bernard.

The death benefit to volunteer firemen was also doubled from $15,000 to $30,000, said Bernard, although he added that there has not been a service-related death in more than 25 years of either volunteer or career firemen in the county.

Seavey commended the establishment of a disciplinary process to protect the volunteer firemen and rescue workers from harassment.

Montgomery County’s fire and rescue teams have followed a national trend in the last decade of urban and suburban departments in metropolitan areas becoming staffed more by full-time firefighters and less by volunteer firemen.

“Employers aren’t going to let employees get up and run around in a fire truck the way they would 30 years ago,” said Seavey. “The workplace isn’t around the corner any more, it’s 40 miles away in an office building. The demographics have changed to the detriment of the volunteer service,” Seavey said.

With that shift has come an increase in tension between career firefighters and volunteer firefighters, Seavey said. It is not uncommon for close-knit crews of full-time firemen to perceive volunteers working on the same unit as outsiders, and that perception can lead to social exclusion and harassment, Seavey said.

While both Seavey and Bernard said that volunteers and career firefighters work well together, and that tension among the county’s ranks of emergency responders is low, that it is still important to clarify the procedures.

“Sometimes there’s not a sense of inclusion,” Seavey said. “There’s not any attempt made to bring [volunteers] into the training environment, and that can’t be tolerated. We are one unit.”

The new agreement creates a consistent policy with open channels of communication and clear disciplinary results, Seavey said. Formerly such matters were often conducted privately, with the volunteers never knowing if any action had been taken, or vice versa, Seavey said.

The community is well served by the cooperation, they said.

“The bottom line is when the call comes in everyone works perfectly well, side by side,” said Bernard.

“I would say at Cabin John we’re fortunate,” Seavey said. “We share probably one of the best working relationships [between career and volunteer firemen] that you’ll find anywhere in county.”

THE DEAL is already being scrutinized by other volunteer associations around the country, Seavey said, and will likely spawn similar deals as counties look to secure their volunteer constituents.

“The first thing [the deal] says,” said Bernard, “is that the county recognizes the importance of the volunteers. … The county is saying, ‘We want you, we need you, and we’ll guarantee you some rights.’”

Praisner echoed Bernard’s sentiments.

“All of us were anxious to ensure that the volunteer would continue to be an integral part of our system,” Praisner said.

Per the language of the contract, negotiation to renew the contract must begin on or before Nov. 1 of 2007, Bernard said. The contract will be completed by Feb. 1, 2008 and funded by June 30, 2008 and the ensuing term of the contract will be three years, Bernard said.