CRS financial crisis

December 02, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY
(Page 2 of 4)

CRS officials said the company gives three days off to reduce burnout among paid medics. But Nye conceded the format makes it difficult to reduce payroll costs with volunteers.

"We sort of shot ourselves in the foot," he said.

In addition to the lack of volunteers, CRS officials said more career medics have been recruited to turn around what Amos described as a "poor" level of performance.

Prior to 1996, CRS was failing to respond to emergencies - that is, to arrive within the crucial five-minute response time - an average of 12 to 15 times a month, or 2 to 3 percent of the time. In those instances, the next closest ambulance company answers the call.

To reduce the number of failures, CRS began to schedule paid medics around the clock.

During the day, the company had seven medics and one officer on duty at the main station on Eastern Boulevard. That gave the company the ability to respond to as many as four emergencies simultaneously.


At night, which usually is slower, CRS had five medics and one officer.

The increased staffing corrected the problem it was meant to address: Since the switch, CRS has averaged less than one failure a month.

"It (hurt) us financially, but it worked," Amos said.

New building, new costs

At the same time Community Rescue Service was grappling with exploding payroll costs and declining revenues, it took on another large expense: roughly $11,000 in monthly mortgage payments on a $1.4 million station on Eastern Boulevard that opened last year.

The mortgage costs about $132,000 a year - the second-highest expense in the budget, behind payroll. The former headquarters on East Franklin Street was paid for.

While conceding the mortgage costs have pinched the company's finances at a time when other parts of budget were growing out of control, Amos defended the decision to build the new headquarters.

The former station, built in 1957, was no longer viable, he said. The building had a small, cramped bunk area and a room that doubled as a lounge area and meeting room. Volunteers could not take EMS classes at the station because there was no room to hold them.

The new facility has a larger, more comfortable living area, a classroom, a separate conference room and space to house all the ambulances and rescue equipment.

Such considerations are important to medics who spend 24 hours at a time at the station, said CRS Chief Operations Officer Christopher N. Amos.

"It becomes your second home," he said.

CRS board members also pointed out that a new facility reduces maintenance costs.

Still, some EMS officials questioned the decision to build the new headquarters in light of Community Rescue Service's financial standing.

"I think CRS needed it, no question about it," said Jay Grimes, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association, which distributes taxpayer funds to fire and ambulance departments. "But apparently, they weren't able to handle the loan debt."

Williamsport Volunteer Ambulance Service Chief Dave Hays said he believes the company erred when it proceeded with the construction. He said the Williamsport rescue company determined it had outgrown its station about 12 months ago and acquired land along U.S. 11, but has not yet built because "the funding's not there.''

"We are pretty much in the same situation financially. We're struggling to meet our needs," he said.

Unneeded property

Even CRS officials concede they could have handled the move to the new headquarters smarter.

Before building the station, the previous CRS board feuded with the Hagerstown City Council and the city's Board of Public Safety over its location and design.

CRS had scouted several possible locations for its headquarters. The city donated space at its new Eastern Boulevard fire station. The plan called for firetrucks and ambulances sharing space.

But the plan required CRS to change its design. The original design had ambulances and fire vehicles using a different exit, which city officials considered too dangerous.

Some city officials also questioned at the time whether the ambulance squad's building design was too grandiose; CRS officials later dropped plans for a banquet hall.

CRS is also trying to sell land it bought but never used. That includes 2.15 acres on Sapphire Court behind Eastern Boulevard near the present station that the company bought in 1995 for $236,500 and another site at 1025 Virginia Ave., which it bought in 1995 for $110,000. It was supposed to have housed a substation.

"We have property we shouldn't have," Nye said.

New ambulances

Nonetheless, Nye said the mortgage cost represents a small part of CRS' problem.

"We would still have the problem had we stayed in the old building," he said. "Our fundamental problem is operation expenses exceed revenues."

Among the expenses that some representatives of other rescue companies question is the timing of four new ambulance purchases.

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