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For Hancock, 'wait and see' isn't enough

February 03, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

When the Rayloc factory closes in Hancock on March 17, more than 200 workers, some of whom have been there more than 20 years, will be laid off.

The economic impact on all of those families will be tremendous and many former workers will no doubt have to start commuting to jobs closer to the big cities.

But Hancock, which has seen two other factories close in recent years, will have to absorb another blow.

Rayloc, under a policy rare among businesses today, allowed some of its employees to answer volunteer fire and rescue calls on company time.

Hancock Deputy Chief Stephen Barnhart said that last month when dispatchers got a report of an emergency, they would call Rayloc, which would allow a crew of five volunteer firefighters to leave the plant to respond.

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As Rayloc workers prepare to deal with financial pain and uncertainty about the future, Washington County officials of the Division of Fire & Emergency Services are looking at how to maintain fire and rescue protection in the far western part of the county.

Kevin Lewis, deputy director of the division, said he had talked to Bill Willison, chief of the Hancock Fire Department. Lewis said both agreed that the real effect won't be known until Rayloc actually closes.

"They rely extensively on the volunteer system and three of those five (people) dispatched from Rayloc live in the First-due area," Lewis said.

Depending on where those volunteers find work and where they end up living will determine whether they can continue volunteering, Lewis said.

Lewis didn't say it, but it will also depend on whether their new employers are as public-spirited as Rayloc was. Many years ago, I was involved in a volunteer-recruiting project with Mike Weller, now fire prevention coordinator for the City of Hagerstown.

One of the things we did was held a meeting with local businesspeople to try to convince them to do as Rayloc did. Except for a few companies, most were not enthusiastic about the idea.

I imagine there would be even fewer today, since there are now more companies here with headquarters far removed from Hagerstown.

Firefighters have told me that some of those companies are reluctant to contribute to fire companies because they're viewed as just another charity, such as the Boy Scouts.

In Hancock, Lewis said that as of now there are "no unmet needs," when it comes to getting a response to calls. It's those more serious calls - a multi-car pileup on the interstate, for example - that he says are a concern.

"The issue is not on the primary initial response. Our issue is with the second call," Lewis said.

Making sure there is an adequate response might mean adding more personnel, but under the first phase of the Emergency Medical Services strategic plan, Lewis said there will be three "chase cars" staffed with advanced-life-support personnel who will respond to calls when needed.

The second phase of that plan will involve evaluating each company's needs - and those of the surrounding areas, Lewis said.

Because fire and rescue companies run on a mutual aid basis, Lewis said it's not unusual to respond to a call across state lines if the company there is unable to respond.

"We cross boundaries all the time," Lewis said, adding that the Rayloc closure might affect Morgan County, W.Va., which sometimes needs Hancock volunteers' help.

(To those who wonder why the needs of a West Virginia county should concern those on the Maryland side of the border, the answer is simple - because if Hancock needed help, Morgan County companies wouldn't hesitate to provide it.)

To devise a long-term plan for getting personnel where they need to be, Lewis said the county commissioners approved implementation of the BARB, the Box Area Runcard Builder, which uses a geographic information system to look at run responses.

"This way we can evaluate who is truly closest to the jurisdiction the call came from," Lewis said.

The county commissioners got a report on the strategic plan Dec. 17 and learned that the previous February, 22 of the county's fire and rescue companies had backed the plan, with only two opposed.

John Latimer IV, the division director who has now resigned, said that Phase I had been implemented with the exception of adding personnel. Latimer said his department was waiting on the commissioners' formal approval of the plan.

Phases I and II will cost about $5 million, Latimer told the county board, although Phase II expenses would occur over time and would be "based on need," according to the minutes of that meeting.

It would seem that now is Hancock's time of need and that perhaps those volunteers from Rayloc, who left the safety of the workplace many times for the uncertainty of an emergency response, should get some consideration for fire and rescue positions, if they are interested.

The commissioners ought not to settle for a "wait and see" strategy. If the worst happens and none of the Rayloc volunteers can continue, the commissioners need to give Lewis the authority to hire personnel immediately.

It's the right thing to do from the standpoint of public safety, but also for economic development purposes.

Unless the commissioners are ready to write off Hancock, they need to assure any prospective employer that its workers - and the company's assets - will have the best possible fire and rescue protection.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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