Frederick County commissioners mull cuts to fire service -- Gazette.Net



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Budget cuts to Frederick County’s Division of Fire and Rescue Services would trim paid staff positions from several fire stations around the county, but the Frederick County Board of Commissioners is unlikely to support any proposal that would lead to layoffs of firefighters.

Fire and Rescue Director Tom Owens presented a plan to cut costs and increase revenues for the division to the commissioners at a meeting on Thursday.

The commissioners are expected to vote on the plan in the coming weeks.

Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young said he wanted to wait until the full five-member board was present to vote on the issue.

Commissioner Billy Shreve (R) missed the meeting because he was out of town, and Commissioner David Gray (R) was absent for much of it because of a scheduling conflict.

The cuts suggested by Owens could cause volunteer members of Frederick’s Independent Hose Co. to operate the company’s second ambulance overnight during the week and all day on the weekends. The proposal would also reduce paid staff positions at the Point of Rocks station from around-the-clock to only during weekdays, among other changes.

“We simply cannot achieve this level of reduction without staffing impact,” Owens said.

The commissioners had directed Owens to find $4 million in cuts or increase revenue to help minimize the budget impact of their decision to move the county’s fire tax, which 12.8 cents per $100 of assessed property value, into the general fund rather than maintaining it as a separate tax.

The county has about 335 paid firefighters.

Owens proposed two options, one that would save $3.6 million and lead to firefighter layoffs and another that would save $4 million and reduce firefighter positions through attrition.

Under the first option, Owens said the division would count any open positions or pending retirements, but the remainder of the 12 positions eliminated would come from probationary firefighter positions, leading to the disparity in savings.

Young said he doesn’t think any of the commissioners would support a plan that included layoffs.

“I think it reaches to the level of being a no-brainer,” said Commissioners’ Vice President C. Paul Smith (R).

The second option would eliminate:

• A part-time fire marshal position and two positions in the division’s Health and Wellness program, which provides employees with nutritional information and occupational therapy help.

• A breathing-apparatus technician position that is expected to come open through a retirement.

• Twelve firefighter positions and five lieutenants through attrition.

Owens said a $25,000 retirement incentive approved last week by the commissioners for fire and rescue personnel with at least 20 years of experience would likely help open up some of the positions.

John Neary, a career county firefighter and head of the local firefighters union, told the commissioners that taking away positions within stations wouldn’t serve the public.

Two of the lieutenant positions proposed for elimination would be shift safety officers, which would cause delays in investigating injury or accidents among fire crews. It would also create more work for battalion chiefs, company officers and volunteer officers who would have to handle safety responsibilities during evening and weekend hours, according to a county memorandum.

The change would result in having a safety officer available only during the daytime hours rather than having one on each of the three, eight-hour shifts as they currently do, Owens said.

Neary said he doubted they would find a lot of volunteers who are willing to put in the amount of time needed for duties such as escorting injured firefighters to the hospital and waiting there to interview them to write a report.

Reducing staffing to the Independent Hose Co. would eliminate four firefighter/medic positions and leave the company’s volunteers responsible for operating the company’s second ambulance because of the high number of calls it receives.

Over the past five years, the company has averaged 1,750 weekday ambulance calls, 1,011 weeknight ambulance calls and 1,007 weekend ambulance calls a year, the memorandum said.

It would be hard for volunteers to work all night at the station while also working their regular jobs during the day, company Chief Rodney Masser told the commissioners.

Not having paid staff to drive the second ambulance would probably mean other stations would have to cover for the company when it couldn’t staff the vehicle, he said.

“If you take it from us, it’s just going to take it from somebody else,” Masser said.

Officials for the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Can’t make everyone happy

Owens’s proposal would also eliminate four firefighter/medic positions at the Point of Rocks station, reducing paid staffing from around the clock to only during weekdays.

Point of Rocks has the smallest response area in the county and the fewest number of people and calls generated, Owens said.

“If we are going to assume a risk of that level of drastic down-staffing, that’s the area of least risk,” he said, although he acknowledged that probably wouldn’t be a convincing argument for residents of the area.

Neary pointed out that although Point of Rocks didn’t generate a lot of calls, its crews help support crews in Brunswick, Carroll Manor and other areas.

Owens’s proposal would also increase revenues by changing the county’s ambulance billing vendor, more aggressively pursuing people who don’t pay their bills for being transported by ambulance, changing fees for being transported by ambulance and beginning to bill insurance companies for responses to incidents such as vehicle crashes, structure fires or hazardous materials incidents.

The volunteer association would not support more aggressive billing of county residents and charging for responding to incidents, the memorandum said.

Young conceded that no plan would make everyone happy, and said the commissioners are willing to listen to any suggestions of ways to cut costs or generate revenues.

“All we’re asking is that everyone work with us,” he said.

rmarshall@gazette.net