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Proposed Pension Change Affects Fallen Firefighter

County officials say benefit is for "a very unique situation."

A proposed change in the pension system will affect only one firefighter: Mark Falkenhan, who died in the line of duty in January.

The County Council is scheduled to vote Monday on a measure that would provide a pension death benefit to volunteer firefighters who were previously employed by the county and who meet other specific criteria.

County employees—such as professional firefighters —who are members of the pension system and who die on the job are eligible for death benefits. Volunteer firefighters are also eligible for a small death benefit.

Keith Dorsey, county budget and finance director, told the council during a March 1 work session that the amendment to the county code "would allow us to provide a (benefit) in a very unique situation."

(Listen to Dorsey's testimony.)

The proposed change applies only to volunteer firefighters who die in the line of duty. To qualify, the firefighter must have have been a former county employee with at least 15 years of contributions to the county retirement system but who had not removed his or her contributions from the county pension system.

If approved, the deceased volunteer's surviving family would receive an annuity equal to the 2 percent of the former employee's average final salary multiplied by the number of years the firefighter was employed by the county.

Falkenhan was not mentioned during Dorsey's testimony. An auditor's note on the bill also does not refer to Falkenhan but states that the "benefit is very specific and narrow in scope."

On Wednesday, Baltimore County Fire Department Chief John Hohman confirmed that the benefit would directly benefit Falkenhan's widow and two sons.

Falkenhan, 43, died on Jan. 19 while fighting a four-alarm fire in a three-story Hillendale apartment complex. He was the first firefighter to die in the line of duty since 1984.

Falkenhan joined the county fire department in 1990 as an emergency medical technician. He retired from the department in 2006 to take a position with the U.S. Secret Service.

He joined the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Co.  nearly two years ago.

The exact amount of the payment wasn't immediately available, but Hohman estimated it would be equal to about 30 percent of Falkenhan's final salary with the county—calculated as the average over his last 12 months of service.

Hohman said the bill was narrowly written so that "it would not place an undue burden on the pension system."

Most firefighters who retire or leave the county for other jobs typically take their pension contributions with them, Hohman said.

"It's hard for me to imagine that this will ever affect anyone else," Hohman said.

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