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Don't leave CRS out of talks on emergency fee

August 18, 2005

Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker on Tuesday asked the City Council to consider a tax increase to fund additional firefighters.

No doubt the fire department's needs are critical, given the growth occurring in and around the city. But the needs of Community Rescue Service (CRS), which provides most ambulance transports in the city, must also be considered.

An emergency services fee could be rolled into the property tax rate, or, under legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year, the city could create a special district and levy a fire/rescue tax.

Chief Hawbaker said Tuesday he needs an additional $900,000 to $950,000 a year because city fire engines are often dispatched with only a driver on board.

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That driver must then unload the equipment and fight the fire, Hawbaker said.

Hawbaker didn't say this, but without more firefighters, the city might have difficulty meeting the "two-in, two-out" standard set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

According to a bulletin from the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, OSHA requires that at least two firefighters enter the structure together and be in direct voice or radio contact with each other and with firefighters outside.

Hawbaker said Wednesday that although engines are often dispatched with only one person aboard, other firefighters come to the scene in other vehicles.

To meet the need Hawbaker describes, the tax on a $150,000 home would increase by $60 to $75 per year. No one wants to see that total go even higher, but if city government eyes such a tax, it must look at including CRS.

Inside the city limits, CRS does most of the ambulance transports and many patients have no insurance and no ability to pay in cash.

In May, Terry Trovinger, the chief financial officer at CRS, told the council that the ambulance squad was under increasing financial stress.

CRS was getting $50,000 a year from the city, and while Trovinger said he was not asking for emergency funding, he was seeking an increase in the annual stipend.

At the time, then-Councilman Linn Hendershot recommended that be increased to at least $100,000, which the council did.

Is that enough? That's a decision that shouldn't be made without another meeting with CRS officials. As the city grows, the calls for CRS service will increase. We'd like to believe that increased donations will cover those costs, but it hasn't worked out that way so far.

One final thought: Leave the Washington County government out of this matter. In an election year, the county commissioners will not raise taxes.

And Joe Kroboth, director of the Division of Fire and Rescue and Emergency Management, was recently named the county's deputy director of the Division of Public Works.

Until his replacement arrives, the commissioners, who are not much inclined to do anything on this issue this year, are unlikely to even discuss it.

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