- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

A deaf Seabrook, Md., man has filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Prince Georges County government after being rejected for a position as a volunteer firefighter.
Court documents show that Jerrod Keim, 27, took a physical examination as part of the application process for becoming a firefighter in April 1999. He received a letter in August saying he had been denied a position because of his disability.
Mr. Keim, a native of Danville, Ky, and a graduate of Gallaudet University in the District, lost his hearing at 23 months from maternal rubella, or German measles, which occurs during the first trimester of a womans pregnancy.
Unaided, Mr. Keim has a 100- to 105-decibel hearing loss. Anything above 85 decibels is considered "profound," the highest degree of hearing loss. A hearing aid improves Mr. Keims hearing to a 35-decibel loss, which is considered "mild."
But Mr. Keim maintains that all firefighters are "temporarily disabled" by the noise of the engines operating at high speed in order to supply pressure and deliver water into the hoses, and the protective gear they use.
You would be amazed at hearing those kinds of sounds when you are at a fire ground," he said.
Mr. Keim said infrared cameras would help him identify an injured person more effectively than hearing a call for help, and a vibrating alarm on his belt could take the place of bells or alarms.
"Those kind of devices possible for me to perform as a firefighter," said Mr. Keim, who currently works as a lifeguard in the county. As part of his qualifications, he points out that he spent 400 hours as an intern with the D.C. fire department.
Sixth Battalion Fire Chief Geoffrey Grambo remembers him as "very spirited." He said Mr. Keim did mostly clerical work but went out on ride-alongs and was well received by others in the department.
"I was kind of wondering if it was eventually going to boil down to something like this," Chief Grambo said.
The chief offered his qualified support to Mr. Keim, saying he would enter a burning building with him but could see where others might have reservations.
"On a one-two-three fire, would it really make a difference? No," Chief Grambo said. "If things started getting ugly for whatever reason, yes, it would be a little tough."
Capt. Richard Fleming of the Districts fire/arson investigations, unit supervised Mr. Keim for about five months as an intern last year. He praised Mr. Keims dedication and enthusiasm, but said having him at a fire scene could create some safety concerns.
"Any disability you have on this job is a safety issue," he said. Capt. Fleming stressed that a firefighter has to be able to use all his senses on the job to complete his assessment of certain situations.
In 1998, Prince Georges County reached an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in a similar suit brought by two hearing -impaired applicants.
The agreement stated the county would "no longer automatically reject applicants to be volunteer firefighters or rescue technicians solely on the basis of disability."
Frank Underwood, president of the Prince Georges County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said that the county is always looking for volunteers, and that as long as Mr. Keim wears his hearing aids he should be given a chance.
"I feel for the kid because he really wants to be an asset," Mr. Underwood said.
Mr. Underwood said the nine-member Prince Georges County Volunteer Fire Commission, which was elected by the volunteer fire companies, rejected Mr. Keims application. An appeal was denied.
Mr. Keims lawyer, Kelby N. Brick, said they had tried to resolve the matter amicably, but "all efforts have failed."
"There are already other deaf and hard-of-hearing firefighters, and they have served successfully and honorably," Mr. Brick said.
He is asking for an order approving Mr. Keims application, an end to the countys discriminatory practices and monetary damages of an unspecified amount. No date has been set for Mr. Keims case.
Attorneys for Prince Georges County could not be reached for comment.
Prince Georges County currently has about 1,000 active volunteer firefighters in 46 stations operated by 37 volunteer fire companies.

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