Neall ponders efficiency in firefighting

September 17, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

With the threat of budget cuts looming, County Executive Robert R. Neall is looking for ways to better use volunteer firefighters to provide fire protection services.

Mr. Neall said last week that he is working on a plan that would use volunteer firefighters on shifts such as evenings and weekends and allow the county to use paid firefighters on week days.

Although Mr. Neall has not completed his plan, the president of the county's Volunteer Firefighters Association said he would welcome a greater use of the volunteers.

"I think it would boost the morale of the volunteers and be beneficial to the tax payers," said Louis D'Camera, who was elected to his second term.

Anne Arundel taxpayers currently pay more for fire protection than any other suburban jurisdiction in the state except Baltimore County, an analysis of county fire budgets shows.

Fire service costs $93 per person in Anne Arundel, nearly as much as the $96 per person cost in Baltimore County, a jurisdiction with a population more than a third greater.

Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County, as well as Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties, rely on a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

But Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have more paid fire department employees per capita than the other counties, driving up costs.

The per capita cost of fire protection in the other suburban jurisdictions ranges from $88 in Montgomery County to $72 in Howard.

Despite overall budget cutbacks, Anne Arundel has continued to increase the amount it spends on fire protection.

The department's current operating budget is $40.8 million, compared with $38.9 million in the 1992 fiscal year and $40 million in 1991.

Baltimore and Prince George's counties fire budgets shrank over the same period, and Howard County's grew by less than $1 million.

Anne Arundel Fire Administrator Paul C. Haigley Jr. cautioned against drawing direct comparisons between the counties' fire budgets.

"Budgets are like Thomas' English muffins. There are a lot of nooks and crannies," he said.

But he also suggested viewing the budgets in terms of geographic areas covered.

Using that comparison, Anne Arundel County has the second lowest fire protection costs -- $97,988 per square mile -- among suburban jurisdictions. Montgomery County, at $130,059 per square mile, has the highest costs.

While comparing the budgets is difficult, it is clear that staffing levels, equipment purchases, and operating costs converge to drive up costs in Anne Arundel.

While other counties have had to cut or eliminate new equipment purchases from their budgets, Anne Arundel continued to buy fire apparatus.

In the current fiscal year, the department has budgeted $1.1 million for new cars, trucks, utility vehicles and ambulances, more than in Baltimore and Prince George's counties, where the departments have not been able to afford new equipment for several years.

Mr. Haigley pointed out that Anne Arundel put money for new equipment in its budget last year but never bought any.

The cost of operating stations -- $5.6 million for paid and volunteer stations in the current fiscal year -- also pushes Anne Arundel's costs up.

Although operating costs and equipment purchases contribute to the cost, the largest chunk of money in all of the fire departments goes to salaries.

That is where Mr. Neall said he hopes he can save money with his new plan.

While Mr. Neall said he did not believe that Anne Arundel could rely exclusively on volunteers in the evenings, he said that some stations with more active volunteers would be able to staff specific shifts.

"The volunteers have always thought they are being under used," Mr. D'Camera said.

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