A new study of Charles County’s fire and emergency medical services has recommended that the county government establish a position for a chief to oversee all of the county’s volunteer and paid fire and EMS personnel as part of sweeping changes that would improve cooperation and decrease the time it takes to respond to emergencies.
The study, conducted by the Pennsylvania-based public safety consulting firm Mission Critical Partners, also recommended that the county’s volunteer fire and EMS associations merge and reorganize their governance structures to reduce decision-making time and improve operational standards.
The report also cited the need to “fortify” communications between the county’s volunteer first responders and those employed by the county and recommended convening a series of town hall meetings to allow people to share their concerns and discuss solutions.
Mission Critical Partners presented its 253-page report to the Charles County Board of Commissioners last month. The report was the result of nearly six months of site visits, individual and group interviews and strategic planning meetings and calls with county and volunteer association representatives. It represents the first comprehensive review of the state of the county’s fire and EMS capabilities in 15 years.
“The one thing that we found is they all do want to collaborate and move forward,” Mission Critical consultant Heather McGaffin told the commissioners when presenting their findings. The county and the volunteer departments each paid half the cost of the study.
“The volunteer system within the county ... is saving millions of dollars, I don’t have to tell you that,” added consultant Rick Harrison. “But other factors must be reviewed, namely staffing up the apparatus with the volunteers ... timely response to incidents, the training standards, policy and leadership.”
Harrison said that while the study found that “the facilities and apparatus in this county are top-notch,” it also found that response times are gradually lengthening.
One of the factors contributing to longer response times is the lower number of fire and EMS personnel available during the day, when many volunteers are at work — many of them performing the same duties in other counties.
“We have to continue to look at that and ensure that that isn’t slipping below standards,” Harrison said.
One way to do that would be for the county to hire staff to assist volunteer organizations with their recruitment, training and policy development, the report proposed.
Although the study found the county benefited from “strong, experienced leaders,” it also concluded that the lack of a single chief overseeing all volunteer and career fire and EMS activities was a disadvantage.
One of the themes that emerged from interviews with volunteers was that the county commissioners “do not support or understand the value of the volunteer system,” with many volunteers perceiving a “disconnect” between first responders and the board of county commissioners. Harrison said that this had led to a feeling that the volunteer system “just runs itself out there” without commissioner input.
In Charles County, fire responses are handled by 17 incorporated, tax-exempt fire departments. Emergency medical services and special operations are provided by both volunteer and county-employed, or “career,” units. The county government maintains and operates the 911 emergency response system that serves all of those units.
The report also recommended that the Indian Head volunteer fire and EMS station be expanded to allow for more vehicles and equipment, and that new stations be constructed in Bensville between St. Charles and Bryans Road, in the Piney Church Road area east of White Plains, and in Pinefield near the Prince George’s County border to keep up with the rapidly growing population in and around Waldorf.
Board of Charles County Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said that the commissioners planned to hold public discussions about the plan to get input from residents on the report’s recommendations as well as any concerns they have over the timeliness and quality of emergency services.
“I see it as a great opportunity for us ... to really map out a plan for our future,” Collins said. “It creates some degree of uniformity.”
Collins said that he believed the recommendation for a single county-wide fire and EMS chief would help establish “a degree of continuity.”
“I’m also conscious of the fact that when there’s been discussions like this in the past, it didn’t necessarily move forward the way we would have liked,” Collins said.
In 2004, the county and the volunteer departments collaborated on a joint fire and EMS plan that proposed establishing a county-wide policymaking structure, improving communications and evaluating how basic and advanced lifesaving services are billed, among other issues. Although that study did recommend adding more career and volunteer staff, it did not propose an overall fire and EMS chief.
“I just want to take advantage of the opportunity for all of us to ... think through and really look at what would be the best approach as we move forward, and to not think ... like we were thinking 30, 40 years ago,” Collins said.
Charles County Chief of Emergency Medical Services John Filer expressed concern about how sustainable some of the proposals would be to implement.
“When you look at that [report], that comes with a heavy price tag,” Filer said. “I don’t think we have the ... tax income to do a lot of that. I’m not saying that we don’t need to do a lot, but I think we have to be innovative in the way we approach things.”
Filer said that from his perspective, the most crucial priority is filling the “Waldorf gap” by ensuring the available resources are sufficient to meet the call volume.
According to statistics provided by Filer, the four stations in the Waldorf area handled nearly half of the EMS service delivery calls in the county during the last fiscal year.
County Fire Chief Mark Kaufmann also focused on the financial recommendations in the study, in which some interviewees described the volunteer association’s budgeting and financing as “complex and confusing” and the county department of emergency services as operating with a “more with less mentality.”
With regard to budgeting for the volunteer companies, Kaufmann said, “It’s not really a budget, we consider it more a distribution formula. Even before this came out, we actually internally started discussing how to change that to ensure that ... our money is going to the right place.”
Although a portion of a station’s budget is determined by the number and types of vehicles stationed there, Kaufmann pointed out, the current distribution formula does not take into account the fact that vehicles at busy stations will wear out much faster than vehicles in stations that run only a few hundred calls a year.
“To us, making sure that we’re spending taxpayers’ money is probably the utmost importance, that we’re doing it responsibly,” Kaufmann said.