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'Chase cars' will try to catch up with growth

June 01, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

In early February, I wrote about the problem faced by the Town of Hancock, which was not only losing a major employer, but a company that allowed some of its workers to respond to fire and rescue emergencies.

The company was Rayloc, which rebuilt auto parts. Its parent company shut down the Hancock branch, apparently because other branches of its business, including office furniture, were more profitable.

In March, 260 Rayloc employees were laid off, the second major employer - Fleetwood was the first - to shut its doors there in recent years.

In addition to the personal woes this caused for the families who depended on Rayloc for a paycheck, the layoff was also a setback for a town whose response times for advanced life (ALS) support calls were not what county officials hoped they would be.

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The 2007 Emergency Medical Services plan shows that, based on data collected in 2005, Hancock, Clear Spring and Williamsport were experiencing a rate of light/late/failed calls above 10 percent.

Kevin Lewis, acting director of the county's Division of Fire & Emergency Services, explained to me that "light" calls are those in which the company responds without the prescribed number of trained personnel.

"A company might have two persons respond and get out within five minutes, but if one of them isn't trained, it's counted as a "light" call, Lewis said.

Late calls are those on which the company responds, but not within the five minutes Lewis said is the standard. "Failed" calls are what you'd expect - not getting out of the station at all.

To deal with these problems, the new plan offers a two-phase approach. The first is implementation of a "chase car" system, in which advanced life-support personnel are stationed so that they can respond when a company might not otherwise be able to handle a call.

Who gets dispatched and when depends on the type of call. These are classified as "alpha," "bravo" and so on, Lewis said, so that a simple fall wouldn't require as much ALS expertise as would someone having chest pains.

By implementing Phase I of the plan - the "chase car" scenario - Lewis said that the companies will be able to get out of the stations with fewer "light" or "late" responses.

"Phase II takes it a step further," he said, noting that it would put advanced-life support personnel hired by the county into every ambulance company station.

Lewis didn't say it, but I will: That won't be cheap, because you would need enough ALS-trained people to cover 24 hours' worth of shifts - and a few more for vacations and sick days.

Phase II staffing will be triggered in two ways, Lewis said.

The first would be if an individual company comes to the county with a request for staffing, Lewis said.

The other would be through the monitoring that will accompany Phase I. If county officials begin to see light/late/failed calls in the 5 percent to 10 percent range, the county would move to boost company staffing.

Asked how other counties in the region handle similar situations, Lewis said that Frederick County, Md., and Franklin County, Pa., use a variation of the chase-car system.

When I wrote about this in February, the concern for some of the companies in the outlying areas was not with handling single calls, but dealing with something major, such a as a multi-car pileup on Interstates 70 or 81.

Nine ALS people will be hired during the first wave of Phase I, to provide 24-hour coverage for the chase-car units, for which vehicles have already been purchased, Lewis said. Eventually, there will be 12 and a list of candidates will be available by June, Lewis said.

My question: Will the Washington County Commissioners be ready to pull the trigger and activate Phase II if the chase-car system isn't adequate to cover the needs of a growing population?

That said, this is a perfect time to get on my soapbox about growth and its costs. New residents of Washington County expect - and have a right to expect - that fire and rescue service will be available to them.

What was adequate to handle a smaller population won't be enough as the population grows. So it follows that these services must be expanded.

Purchasing new ambulances and building new stations won't be enough, because it will take personnel to staff these resources. And personnel, as opposed to bricks-and-mortar construction, is an ongoing expense.

Even new retail and office development will require such protection, not to mention additional police, as the professional thieves quickly learn which retailers have in-store security and which don't.

So when someone tells you that excise taxes are discouraging growth here and that the Board of Education's efforts to limit class size are excessive - I actually heard the latter argument recently - ask them whether growing a little slower in the residential and retail sectors would really be a bad thing.

It's the argument Maryland Republicans recently used in an attempt to slow the growth of the state budget - give us time to catch up. My own addendum to that: Good growth is, first and foremost, growth that doesn't require those who don't profit from it to pay the lion's share of the costs.

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

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