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Getting fire / rescue off the back burner

March 18, 1999

Last summer, the previous board of Washington County Commissioners received a $90,000 consultant study of fire/rescue operations that basically fudged all the tough issues.

Should paid personnel be hired? We don't have enough information to say, the consultants said. Should there be a fire tax? Again, there was no recommendation, nor did the consultant express an opinion on whether the fire/rescue system is adequately funded. The county board and local fire/rescue officials weren't happy, and sent the study back for revisions, which are due sometime this spring.

So as important (and as unsettled) as fire/rescue is, how did it get left off the list of 1999 goals the commissioners adopted last week?

To find out, I stopped by the commissioners' weekly meeting on Tuesday, only to find them already talking about it. County Administrator Rod Shoop began the confab by saying that the county is just about at the limit of what it can do to fund the fire/rescue service with existing revenue sources.

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The commissioners granted the service a $50,000 increase this year, but rejected a proposal to pay all county companies' utilities, which would have cost an additional $300,000 annually. Also cut was a proposed Emergency Medical Services coordinator.

Still, fire/rescue servioce officials indicated to Shoop that they could live with the increase they got, a reaction which puzzled Commissioner Bert Iseminger, who said he couldn't understand how the service could sustain a major cut in its proposed budget and still be satisfied. Iseminger said he'd like to see an overall budget for the service, so the commissioners can see what's absolutely necessary. Shoop said a joint meeting beteween fire/rescue officials and the county board might be in order.

Such a meeting could answer questions like the one from Commissioner John Schnebly, who wondered why all fire/rescue companies don't bill homeowners' insurance when they respond to a fire or transport someone by ambulance. Some apparently do, while some others consider it more trouble than it's worth.

Schnebly, himself an insurance company executive, speculated that some companies might believe that billing homeowners' insurance companies would hurt their other fund-raising activities. He said he liked the way funding is handled by Community Rescue Service, which doesn't bill if you've made a donation in advance.

Commissioners' President Greg Snook then questioned whether it would be more equitable to base funding on a company's number of calls, or on the distance their equipment has to travel to get to the scene.

Questions like that, and all the rest, really, ought to be answered by the consultants, who should be able to find out how these things are handled in other areas and make some recommendations on how to do it here. That's what they get the big money for.

My suggestions, on the other hand, are free, and include the following, some of which I've written on previously:

- To make a fire tax palatable, the fire/rescue service has to make the case that either donations or insurance reimbursements won't bring in enough to get the job done.

To determine whether voluntary contributions are a viable funding source, I suggest that during fire-prevention month, all county companies send out their fund-raising letters, accompanied by proclamations and much publicity. Then let shlubs like me, who'll never ride a fire truck, do telephone follow-ups to those who don't respond.

If it works, fine. If it doesn't, then the commissioners can impose a fire tax, secure in the knowledge that it was the only way to go.

The fire/rescue companies should root for the fund-raiser to succeed, because if it doesn't and a tax is imposed, the cash surely won't be turned over to volunteers (as gaming commission money is now) without a budget review by the commissioners. Getting more money through a fire tax will mean more county control, and the companies should think twice about whether they want elected officials second-guessing the way they run their stations.

- Checking into the legality of giving hiring preference for paid positions to those who've previously done volunteer service at the same station.

The tension between paid and volunteer personnel exists, but as training requirements and the demands of volunteers' employers increase, the number of paid personnel will have to increase, especially during the daylight hours. If new paid personnel can be drawn from the ranks of those who've done it as a public service, the transition should be easier.

- Putting future studies into the hands of citizen groups. In 1991, a group called Focus, Inc., addressed many of the same issues as this consultant report. There are times when consultants are invaluable, such as when engineering calculations are needed. But with the Internet and other research tools, how tough could it be to find out how other Maryland counties fund their fire/rescue operations?




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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