Schuh signs law altering benefits program for volunteer firefighters

January 23, 2017

A controversial proposal to adjust the terms of a benefits program for longtime volunteer firefighters in Anne Arundel County became law on Monday.

Seated at a table in front of a red and white fire engine and flanked by firefighters, County Executive Steve Schuh signed Bill 90-16 into law at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company Station in Severna Park.

The legislation, passed by the county council last week, increases the benefits some volunteer firefighters receive through the Length of Service Award Program, or LOSAP. It also changes the qualifications for the program, limiting who is eligible.

Schuh said the law updates outdated terms of the program, which was created years ago as a way to both thank volunteers and help fire departments retain them.

"We have an unusual fire service here in Anne Arundel County, in that it's half paid professional and half volunteer," Schuh said. "So we are extremely reliant on the volunteers, who, in many cases, give decades of service to Anne Arundel County without compensation."

Councilman Michael Peroutka, R-Millersville, joined Schuh at the bill signing, praising the legislation and the work that got it passed.

Members of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association have pushed for the changes to LOSAP since before Schuh took office.

The LOSAP program, which exists throughout the country, gives monthly payments to volunteer firefighters ages 50 or older who have completed at least 25 years of active service.

Under the new law, those payments will increase from $250 a month to as much as $400 a month for LOSAP members who choose to stay active in their departments after reaching the 25-year benchmark.

Craig Harman, treasurer of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association and chairman of the association's LOSAP work group, said the chance to earn more benefits is meant to incentive volunteers to stay involved longer.

"The goal is that our members, as they get into their 50s and so on, they start transitioning to becoming more into the administrative role, mentoring role, and sustaining the business, while the younger, newer members run the calls," Harman said.

But the law also adds a new requirement for beneficiaries: In order for volunteers to accrue the service points that make them eligible for LOSAP benefits, they must belong to an "active company," defined as a volunteer group that responds to at least 5 percent of a station's emergency calls over the course of a year.

That provision drew critics to recent county council meetings, where members of some volunteer companies voiced their opposition and concerns.

Opponents argued that the departments that would be deemed inactive under the law still contribute to public safety in the county, and doing away with their LOSAP benefits would hurt their efforts to recruit and retain members.

The county council amended the law to delay the date companies could be deemed "inactive" to Jan. 1, 2020, effectively creating a three-year grace period for the stations to become active and eligible for LOSAP benefits.

It passed 6-1, with Councilman Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, casting the lone "nay" vote.