Fire chief still waits for pay fix

April 15, 1997


Staff Writer

N. Leon Wolfe Jr. took a pay cut when he accepted the promotion from firefighter to chief of the Fort Ritchie Fire Department in 1985. But he was confident that legislation pending in Congress would adjust the salary structure.

More than a decade later, Wolfe is still chief and he's still waiting for legislation to pass.

Being chief has its perks. Wolfe doesn't have to work night shifts or holidays like regular firefighters at the base. And he works fewer hours than firefighters, who work 24-hours shifts three days a week.

Under the current pay structure, federal firefighters often lose thousands of dollars when they are promoted to supervisory positions because they work fewer hours, according to a statement by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.


Why did Wolfe take a job that paid thousands of dollars less than the firefighter job, and came with administrative headaches?

"That's a good question," he said. "I ask myself that a lot sometimes."

Sarbanes has reintroduced legislation that would raise Wolfe's salary and change a pay structure under which federal firefighters make up to 44 percent less than other government employees at the same pay level.

If it passes, the legislation would affect firefighters at about 20 facilities in Maryland, including 24 at Fort Ritchie. When the base closes on Oct. 1, 1998, those firefighters will be transferred to Fort Detrick in Frederick County, base spokesman Steve Blizard said.

Sarbanes spokesman Jesse Jacobs said the Senate bill and its counterpart in the House have been referred to legislative committees. Sarbanes was a cosponsor of legislation that failed last year.

A study by the International Association of Fire Fighters showed that a GS-5 federal firefighter earns $7.21 per hour. Other federal employees at that grade make $10.34 per hour and the average salary for municipal firefighters is $12.87 per hour, according to a statement issued by Sarbanes.

"The current system is clearly inequitable," Sarbanes said in the statement. "There is no way you can examine this issue and not come to the conclusion that this is a grossly unfair situation."

Wolfe said the inequities result from the way the federal government calculates the hours. Firefighters do not get paid true overtime as other federal employees do, he said. Firefighters at Fort Ritchie work every other day, 24 hours a day - or 72 hours.

The formula is highly complex, he said.

"You almost need to be an accountant to calculate pay of firefighters," Wolfe said.

The bill would also prevent firefighters from losing pay during training sessions in hazardous materials, emergency medicine and other specialities.

The Herald-Mail Articles