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Tough calls ahead on fire, rescue

March 18, 2006|By Linn Hendershot

It's very refreshing these days to hear Hagerstown City Council members and recently appointed Mayor Robert Bruchey talk about putting public safety front and center on issues that need to be addressed.

In the past, everyone has been very timid about this subject, using a Band-Aid approach to public safety issues. The reason for this is pure and simple money. We all know it's going to take a fist full of taxpayer dollars to bring the city's fire department, police department and emergency services (Community Rescue Service) up to snuff, due to years and years of neglect.

Municipalities such as Hagerstown, Boonsboro, Hancock and others are older communities with houses constructed mostly of wood and built close together. In recent weeks, we've had a rash of fires with one fatality, demonstrating how vulnerable we are.

We have been extremely fortunate that there hasn't been even more loss of life and injuries. The reason for our fire department's success is the way our firefighters aggressively approach a working fire, even when understaffed, to prevent a real disaster.

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Currently, Chief Gary Hawbaker is asking for 19 additional city firefighters at a cost of $946,798, not in the future, but now. We need to listen to his concerns and begin moving our fire department into the 21st century.

The personnel issue is paramount, but in addition, the city also must develop a master plan for the location of fire stations that will help our men and women better respond to fire. We have stations where firetrucks must leave going the wrong way on a one-way street and fire stations that were built for horse-drawn fire apparatus in the 19th century.

The city is reluctant to look at the idea of a super station or change the locations of existing stations to better serve the community, because three of our Hagerstown stations are owned and operated by volunteer fire organizations that receive funding from Washington County gaming funds. With the city squeezing every dollar, it's hesitant to endanger that revenue stream.

The other group that is pleading for help to better serve Hagerstown and the surrounding area is Community Rescue Service (CRS). Do you realize that last year CRS made nearly 7,000 calls and that this number is increasing? Those EMS calls represent 52 percent of all the ambulance calls in Washington County. CRS has three ambulance crews available at all times, running constantly.

To better serve this population and the citizens on the West End of Hagerstown, CRS would like to place a unit in the city, but this would cost $175,000 to cover the peak periods of need and $250,000 to provide 24-hour coverage. This would also need the approval of the Washington County director of Emergency Services, who in turn would need the approval of other EMS operational units within Washington County.

Recruiting volunteers is tough. With everyone's busy schedule and having to work second jobs to make ends meet these days, it's more and more difficult to lure people to volunteer for anything. Granted, we need all the volunteers we can get, but the handwriting is on the wall we are going to be forced to pay to have these jobs performed.

Hopefully, the city fathers and the County Commissioners will give John Latimer, the Washington County Director of the Division of Fire and Emergency Services, the backing and support he deserves to once and for all look out for the welfare of our citizens and call a truce among the 27 volunteer fire departments and emergency service units with their turf battles and egos.

Wouldn't it be prudent for the City of Hagerstown to work with the Washington County government to help improve ambulance response times not only in the downtown and West End of Hagerstown, but also throughout Washington County and wait to see finally if the Washington County Hospital stays where it is or moves somewhere else?

It is my hope that the City Council doesn't overreact, feeling it has to hire all 19 firefighters immediately. Personally, I feel it would be wise to work out an affordable phase-in hiring plan. On the other hand, CRS received $100,000 last budget cycle and maybe this valuable Hagerstown resource will have to hold tight at that number until the study findings come back. The CRS needs assessment is on the money, but the timing is bad due to the city's current fiscal challenges.

During the upcoming weeks, when the council is knee-deep in numbers working on the budget, I pray that its members use common sense and do the best they can to prevent a dramatic increase in taxes. It won't be an easy task. Best of luck!

Linn Hendershot is a former

Hagerstown City Council member.

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