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Washington Co. fire master plan in works

June 12, 2010|By ANDREW SCHOTZ
  • This photo shows an exterior view of the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Washington County's government has a new plan -- years in the making -- for subsidizing and overseeing volunteer emergency medical services companies.

Fire companies are next, according to Glenn Fishack, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

"We are working on it as we speak," Fishack said of a fire company plan. "We started about four months ago. Hopefully, it will be done by the first of the year," when the association would send it to the county government for review.

On Tuesday, the Washington County Commissioners approved the final details of an "EMS Plan for the Future."

The county's eight volunteer EMS companies will split $1.7 million to start, enabling them to guarantee 24-hour-a-day staffing.

The plan, which takes effect July 1, includes tighter measures for the county to oversee the finances of volunteer companies. For every 30 days a company is late in submitting its records, it will lose 10 percent of its subsidy.

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In the past, if companies were late, they would get all of their county funding, retroactively, once they turned in their records.

Fishack said he favors a greater penalty, such as a 25 percent loss in subsidy for each month records are late.

"It's big business," he said. "It's not kids' play .... They just have to get away from the mom and pops doing the books."

The county also gets to review other records of the companies, such as staffing, billing and fuel purchases.

Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr said a big obstacle to an EMS plan was changing a mind-set. Volunteer companies have bylaws and weren't necessarily eager to hand over all of their records, he said.

Once the county convinced the companies "we don't want to take you over," it was easier to reach an agreement, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

On Friday, Donald Shumaker, president of First Hose Co. of Boonsboro, didn't want to talk about the possibility of a fire master plan.

But Will Ball, the fire chief in Williamsport -- where fire and ambulance services are combined in one organization -- welcomed the county's involvement, including the scrutiny.

"We've never had anything to hide," he said.

A county subsidy plan would benefit fire companies struggling to fill shifts and find money for capital projects.

Ball said volunteer companies have fewer people but more demands and could use the help.

He knew of four county fire companies paying for drivers, but said someone could earn more at Sheetz.

It's unclear how much Washington County would subsidize the roughly 20 volunteer fire companies. Murray gave $10 million as a ballpark figure.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval cast the only dissenting vote when the commissioners approved the EMS master plan on Tuesday.

Kercheval said Thursday that he thought the agreement was too vague and would have liked, for example, a uniform accounting system for volunteer companies.

He also preferred more of a "chase-car system," in which the county would provide cars and paid staff to beef up service in parts of the county.

Murray said the county cut the proposed number of chase cars from four to two in the final plan, allowing for more staffing instead.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire also had concerns about the final EMS plan, but called it a good first step and voted for it.

A fire master plan, expected to take a few years, might be tougher to create. Aleshire noted the number of companies and complexity of issues, particularly the divide between coverage by volunteers in the county and paid firefighters in the city.

Aleshire said it's hard to understand the many needs of volunteers -- staffing, equipment, facilities -- without talking to them, so he met with all 27 volunteer fire and EMS companies.

He said he thinks fire companies will support a fire master plan if the county treats them as equal partners.

In the background is a pending investigation of bingo and tip jar operations at the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway.

Barr said he'd rather wait until the Halfway investigation is over before taking on a fire master plan. Noting that primary and general elections are approaching, he said it might become a decision for the next county commissioners.

Murray said that might be true, but the legwork of putting the plan together can proceed, separate from what happens in Halfway.

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