- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

A divorced D.C. firefighter yesterday argued before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals that he should not lose custody of his children because of his work schedule.
Lt. Gerald E. Burton's attorney told a three-judge panel that by swapping shifts with other firefighters her client had lived up to the spirit, if not the letter, of a Prince George's County judge's order for Lt. Burton to change his schedule to weekday, daytime hours.
"I think it's going to have a devastating impact, not just on firefighters but on all shift workers," Lt. Raymond Sneed, head of the D.C. Firefighters Association, said after the hearing.
Lt. Burton, who lives in Lanham and works at Engine 24 on Georgia Avenue NW, stood at Lt. Sneed's side on the courthouse steps but declined to discuss the case.
His ex-wife, Diedre Burton, and her attorney said the case is a standard one about parental responsibility but is being blown out of proportion in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks because Lt. Burton is a firefighter.
"I think the public sentiment has been brought here on his behalf but that should not be a factor in this case," Mrs. Burton said. "It's not about his employment. It's not about a job. It's about the fact that [Lt. Burton] lied in court and brought in a false document."
The main point of contention is Lt. Burton's claim that he complied with a judge's order by adjusting his standard firefighter shift schedule 24 hours on duty, 72 hours off to one resembling a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. schedule.
In February, Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Larnzell Martin Jr. found Lt. Burton's "informal practice" of swapping shifts with other firefighters did not meet his order. The judge awarded Mrs. Burton sole custody of the couple's 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
Swapping shifts is a standard and reliable method among firefighters for getting time off, Lt. Sneed said.
The three appellate judges yesterday interrupted Lt. Burton's attorney, Patricia Gearity, almost immediately after she began her remarks. They questioned whether Lt. Burton "equivocated" when he told Judge Martin he could switch to a weekday schedule.
"He did the best he could within the logical parameters of his work," Miss Gearity said, adding that Lt. Burton's swapping of shifts or working a weekday schedule had "no impact on the children."
Mrs. Burton's attorney, Dominique Johnson, characterized the dispute over the schedule as a "smoking gun" that supported Mrs. Burton's claims of other unreliable behavior by Lt. Burton, a 16-year veteran.
Miss Johnson told the judges there is an inaccurate impression that the custody dispute is a national case about firefighters.
"Our position is it's not about Mr. Burton's schedule, it's about his availability," she said. "The problem is not just that he's at work, he's not communicating with the other most important person in the children's life."

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