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tim rowland 2/18/01

February 16, 2001

Fire-rescue study has big wish list, but who pays is a subject it ducks



At least this time the odds are on our side. Every past fire and rescue report handed to the Washington County Commissioners has been duly noted then assigned to some dark storeroom where it never sees the light of day.

Here's hoping that same thing happens to the report commissioners received this week.

The study was performed by a panel, half of whom were fire and rescue folks, that quite predictably did what, to be fair, any one of us would have done in a similar situation: They drew themselves a gift list as long as any 10-year-old has ever written to Saint Nick. The 10-year-old never proposes to Santa how the jolly old elf is to pay these gifts and neither did the fire and rescue panel.

All gain, no pain.

They want a new, $1.8 million training facility. They want a new emergency services center, cost unknown. They want the county to pay for diesel fuel for their tucks and they want the county to pay the utility bills in their buildings at upwards of a half-million dollars a year. They want a $50,000 training director. They want a $50,000 emergency services director. They open the door for the county to put paid firefighters in the departments.

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And how is the county to pay for this largesse? It's not our job to figure that out, the panel said.

Oh? Well then, the case is easily made that if the leaders of the fire and rescue association aren't going to financially and structurally discipline themselves, the county ought to appoint a strongman who will.

Everyone seems to agree there is a crisis of manpower and money in the volunteer system. If you have a money crisis in your home, you write out a budget. And the first thing you do when you write out a budget is figure out how much money you have to spend. Only then do you figure out where you will spend it.

But the emergency services council did it backwards. It happily totaled up all the nice things it would have the county pay for, then left a big question mark on the side of the ledger that foots the bill.

This report has no hint of how much is being spent countywide for fire and rescue service from county contributions, from grants, from the Gaming Commission, from bingo and tip jars. And of course, correspondingly, there was no hint of any sort of reform or frugality on the fire and rescue side, outside of the thought that the county may have too many fire trucks.

The big "concession" is that the volunteer departments will file uniform financial information with the county - something they were all supposed to do years ago.

If the council were serious about addressing the county's fire and rescue needs, here is one of the first things they would have tossed on the table: Washington County has 27 fire and rescue companies, and that doesn't even count the City of Hagerstown. How much money are we wasting and how thinly is manpower being spread by keeping all of these companies open?

And what about funding distribution among these 27 companies? Some volunteers are sitting at their stations in captains chairs watching big screen TV, while at other stations they are sitting on folding metal chairs watching cars go by. Obviously some companies are a lot more attractive to new volunteers and have more money to spend on better equipment.

But would someone from the Halfway department care to argue that its citizens deserve better fire protection than the residents of South County simply because the Halfway volunteers run bigger and better gambling operations?

These are a couple major, but by no means the only, issues that a serious report would have addressed.

The volunteer system is a tremendous service to the county and to the people in Washington County communities. But with the bigger companies' huge gambling operations, new stations and fancy trucks, we're on our way to becoming volunteer in name only.

Note again, the report suggests the county get used to the idea of taxpayer-paid personnel in the volunteer stations. At some point in the future, the commissioners are going to do the math and quite possibly come to the conclusion that with fewer stations, modest trucks and well-managed resources, running a full-time paid department would be cheaper than maintaining the volunteer system.

Right now, the future of the volunteers is in the hands of the volunteers. But that time may be running out. This board of commissioners has shown it is not as prone to allowing financial nonsense as past boards.

The volunteers have always enjoyed special status politically, but that's in jeopardy too. If the public views this latest "study" as a pure, irresponsible money grab, the volunteer system will suffer.

The rank-and-file firefighters and medics who love serving the community should deliver a wake-up call to their leaders and implore that they work for wholesale reform - even if it means surrendering some power, money, territory and titles - before the entire system collapses of its own weight.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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