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'Partners' updating the fire/rescue system

July 07, 2002

'Partners' updating the fire/rescue system



Last summer when Ron Karn retired as chief of Washington County''s 911 emergency dispatch system, the county commissioners took the opportunity to turn the position into the Director of Emergency Services, hiring Halfway Volunteer Fire Company Chief Joe Kroboth to fill it.

Last month the commissioners named Bardonna Woods the new chief of 911 communications, with county spokesman Norman Bassett reporting that Woods would replace the long-retired Karn.

When I asked Commissioner Bert Iseminger how the county board could fill a position it had already transformed into something else, he said it was more complicated than that. And he invited me to sit down to talk with him, Kroboth, and Jason Baer, header of the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

We talked about many things, including the thorny issue of funding Community Rescue Service, which I'll write about next week. This column will be about some of the changes that have been made in the system.

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Iseminger said that some of what has happened is the result of recommendations made in the Carroll Buracker and Associates study, a 300-page, $90,000 report. The consultant produced an addendum to it after the commissioners decided they needed more answers than it provided.

Kroboth said that part of the reclassification that's taken place has resulted in two fewer assistant chiefs in the 911 center.

"Creating Joe's job was about more than the 911 center. It was an opportunity to restructure the entire department," Iseminger said.

Working closely with the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, the organizational chart was reworked so that the association had direct access to Kroboth, instead of going through the county's Human Resources director, as originally envisioned.

Throughout the interview, Iseminger emphasized that the current board and the volunteer association have a partnership which joins the association's fire/rescue expertise with the county board's funding and management experience. If someone were to bad-mouth the association, I got the feeling Iseminger would take it personally.

Iseminger said reviewing that organizational chart was the last function of the original Emergency Services Council, the appointed panel that spent more than a year mulling over the Buracker report.

ESC has now been reconstituted as a seven-member board with three association members, three citizens and Kroboth.

With Kroboth and this panel on board, why did the county bring in three outside people to mediate a dispute between Smithsburg's fire department and its ambulance company over which would run a piece of heavy-duty rescue equipment?

Iseminger said the dispute occurred after the first panel had been dissolved but before the second one was created.

The incident took place, Baer said, "because of some unclear language in our constitution and by-laws."

Iseminger said that "in any future dispute, we hope the association will handle it with Joe's help and with the Emergency Services Council."

Baer said that one of the issues that will be addressed is the controversy over the Section 508 funds the state collects each year for distribution to local fire and rescue companies.

After the last distribution, which sent an equal share of $8,324 to each company, CRS Executive Director J. Michael Nye complained that it should have been on some other basis, like the number of calls run.

That will be addressed at the next ESC meeting on Monday, July 29 at 6:30 p.m., Iseminger said, adding that CRS would be invited to attend and give its input.

He noted that on other items, like utilities and insurance, the county does provide a proportionately larger share of aid to those companies with a greater need.

Cooperation is the key, Iseminger said, adding that for the most part, companies are complying by moving to standard budgeting practices and working on items like standard response procedures.

"Right now we've had one of the best working arrangements we've had with the county commissioners. We recognize the fact that our communities are changing ands we've got to change," Baer said.

Iseminger agreed, saying that "we sort of struck a deal with the association. We recognize that the community is changing and in return the companies are willing to look at how they operate."

Kroboth said that means things like getting involved in a wellness program, adding new computers and software so that fire reports can be done in a standard method and in a timely fashion.

Kroboth said that what's envisioned is a network of 27 separate organizations functioning as one county fire and rescue department.

Will making that happen be easy? Probably not, given the strong personalities these companies have. When all this began, however, I wrote that the toughest part of modernizing the system would be getting those who value their independence to see the wisdom of cooperating.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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