When fire/rescue pie gets sliced, tradition rules

August 04, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Last Monday, Washington County's Emergency Services Advisory Council recommended that all the cash that comes from an annual state grant continue to be divided equally among the county's 27 fire and rescue companies. New money could be apportioned differently, they said, but where that additional cash will come from, nobody was quite sure.

The ESC took up the question of the division of the Sen. Wm. Amoss Fire, Rescue and Ambulance Fund after J. Michael Nye, executive director of Community Rescue Service complained that it should be distributed according to need.

Nye and CRS have been in a funding struggle with the county commissioners, who kicked in $50,000 to support the county's largest and busiest rescue squad after the Hagerstown City Council challenged them to match its own grant. Earlier this year, Joe Kroboth, the county's Emergency Services Director, told CRS it could not count on an automatic repeat of the donation.


The county now gets $224,748 from the Amoss Fund, which it has traditionally divided into 27 equal parts, which gave each company $8,324 this year. To CRS' Nye, this seemed unfair, particularly since Kroboth had given the commissioners an alternate scenario in which funds would be divvied up based on the number of calls handled, a plan that got no serious discussion.

To their credit, ESC members did discuss such a plan, one of 14 possible methods Kroboth presented for them to look at. But they nixed a call-based distribution of the funds for a number of reasons, some of which made more sense than others.

Wayne Williams said that no matter how many or how few calls a company runs, equipment costs remain the same. Jay Grimes said he worried that a call-based system would prompt some companies to respond to more calls than necessary.

If funding is tied to call numbers, Grimes said some companies will be "doing it for the numbers rather than the need."

Kroboth said that basing the distribution of cash on calls would be difficult, because the computer software that tracks calls doesn't distinguish between true emergencies and public service calls, like those made to install smoke detectors or replace their batteries.

County Commissioner Bert Iseminger said he looked at the grant funding and the $40,000 that the county gives each company annually as "a base level of funding."

Jason Baer, head of the volunteer fire-rescue association, said there had to be a way to help busier companies, but not by changing the Amoss formula.

New money must be found, Baer said, and "it's up to us to be creative as to where that money comes from."

Iseminger agreed, saying that "going forward, additional money has to come from the county and there does need to be some way of distributing this based on budget and the number of paid personnel."

In the meantime, Iseminger said, proposals to pay more of companies' fuel costs will help companies that take more calls. Kroboth was unsure about this, saying that some companies have many vehicles traveling back and forth in the county, some for reasons not directly related to fire and rescue.

As for new money, Iseminger has previously hinted that a fire tax or some other increase might be necessary, but this hasn't become a campaign issue - in the way development has, for example - because the only reasonable solution is some sort of tax increase.

Ironically, though CRS lost the argument on Amoss funds, when Iseminger asked if there was any immediate threat to the public safety because of CRS' reduction in its payroll to meet expenses, Kroboth said the company is "short three to four people at any time of the day."

In my view, the county will be hard-pressed not to deal promptly with that problem, perhaps by following one suggestion made at the meeting that the county hire its own paramedics who could move from company to company, based on the need.

Other thoughts:

- Baer said that plans for a county wide fire/rescue fund drive will be presented within the next month or six weeks. I've written previously that if citizens and businesses don't respond, it would be a good argument for a fire tax.

- Grimes' suggestion that some companies might be tempted to inflate their call numbers to get more funding was surprising, given that he's the former head of the volunteer fire-rescue association. Perhaps it was because there was no air-conditioning or air moving in the meeting room, making it difficult to think.

- Kroboth's complaint that his computer software can't tell one sort of call from another sounds like a problem that's easily corrected, if the desire to do so is there.

- In an interview earlier last month with Iseminger, Kroboth and Baer, Iseminger assured me CRS would be invited to attend and give input. Nye attended, but Iseminger asked for his comments only after the funding issue was settled. Nye, who can be irritating, but who isn't stupid, wisely declined to complain about a battle he'd already lost.

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

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