Emergency crews feel pinch

September 06, 2005|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

This is the third installment in an eight-part series about growth in Washington County. The following is a list of what aspects of the growth issue will be featured each day.

Sunday: Overview of Washington County's situation and what Frederick County (Md.) officials faced earlier.

Monday: Sewer and water

Today: Emergency services

Wednesday: Schools

Thursday: Roads

Friday: Housing

Saturday: Law enforcement

Sunday: What's next



Last year, Community Rescue Service responded to 8,594 calls in the City of Hagerstown and parts of Washington County. This year, CRS crews are expected to respond to 9 percent more calls for medical help as a result of growth, said Terry Trovinger, chief financial officer.

Washington County Emergency Services responded to nearly 22,000 fire and rescue calls last year throughout the county ? about a 9 percent increase over the previous year, Director Joe Kroboth said. About 15,000 of those were for emergency medical services. The rest were for fire service emergencies, which include different types of calls, he said.

Fire and ambulance calls in Hagerstown have increased 17 percent since 2000, according to Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker. The number of fire incidents in the city has increased 80 percent since 2003, he said.

Community Rescue Service personnel are responding to more calls with a staffing level that has not changed since the mid-1990s, Chief Christopher Amos said. Sixteen full-time emergency medical technicians and 38 part-time paid EMTs run on calls for CRS. The organization also has some volunteers.

"It's a challenge for us to figure out how we're going to do this with growth in the next few years," Amos said.

Side effects

Amos said declining staffing levels, limited funds, equipment problems and increased traffic all are side effects of growth.

Limited staffing and an escalating number of calls is typical across the county.

"If you put up 10 houses in a community, that's 10 more opportunities for someone to call for help," said Brigitte Heller, EMS management specialist for the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. "That's a few extra calls for service, and we're doing everything we can do."

Hawbaker said staffing has been at "critical levels" for the past few years in Hagerstown's six fire and rescue stations, and conditions are expected to worsen as growth continues. Sixty-three paid personnel, along with 23 active volunteers, respond to calls 24 hours a day in the city, he said.

Hawbaker said he remembers when those numbers were reversed ? when most firefighters and emergency medical technicians were volunteers.

"It used to be that the barber would close the barbershop to go to a fire," he said. "Those days are over."

Even with career staffing in city stations, he said it is common for a firetruck to leave a station with only one person on board, especially during the day when fewer volunteers are available.

"It should be obvious to anyone that if you see one person on a fire engine, he can't do everything," Hawbaker said.

Kroboth said emergency dispatchers are not immune to staffing shortages and also are shorthanded while handling an increased number of calls. National standards project that in Washington County, based on call volume, six fire and rescue dispatchers should be on duty at any time, he said.

There currently are four.

Growing problems

Hawbaker said most new growth is concentrated in the northern and western parts of Hagerstown. He said it is hard to know if that will continue.

"If it does, we may need to relocate some stations or build new ones," Hawbaker said.

Response times in the city have increased from an average of two minutes and 15 seconds to more than three minutes, he said.

Hawbaker said annexation of land around Hagerstown has affected response times as the city's footprint grows. When the city annexes, fire and rescue personnel become responsible for an increased area, he said.

The Hagerstown Fire Department also is responsible for building inspections in the city, he said. Three fire marshals and one public educator are coping with a 33 percent increase in the workload since 2003, while the staffing level has not changed.

The fire marshals inspect buildings for occupancy and fire code compliance, perform site inspections, ensure townhouses and apartment buildings are fitted with fire sprinklers and perform other tasks, Fire Marshal Tom Brown said.

"That's taking up a considerable volume of our workload," he said.

The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway operates with a majority of volunteers, and over the past five years, the workload has become almost too much, Chief Jeff Ringer said.

"Growth is affecting emergency services, and my belief is emergency services are forgotten in the planning process," he said. "We may be an afterthought. We're just not at the top of the list when it comes to growth and how to deal."

Making adjustments

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