Fire department forms panel to critique its work

October 06, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County's fire department wants to get closer to residents -- even when there are no emergencies.

The county's Department of Fire and Rescue has called on citizens for the first time to help it evaluate its emergency-medical services and how it can better reach out to the community.

"We want to modify our services with a people touch," Chief James Heller, the department's director, said yesterday. "Most people only see us when we pick them up off the street. We want to tell people we care about them beforehand."

The department has formed a seven-member panel of county residents and fire representatives to give it feedback and consider medical services it could offer, such as free flu shots and cardiopulmonary-resuscitation training.

The panel met for the first time yesterday at the fire department's headquarters in the Gateway Building in Columbia.

The group is expected to meet at least four more times over the next month and to submit a written report to Chief Heller and County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Chief Heller said the department's emergency medical services division needed a critique to make sure it is meeting public expectations.

The evaluation won't include the department's approach to fighting fires.

In April, some Highland residents complained about the department's firefighting techniques. They said a jurisdictional conflict between the Clarksville fire team and a Montgomery County squad, along with a defensive firefighting policy -- in which firefighters don't directly attack fires -- led to the loss of a $260,000 home.

Chief Heller said the department varies its firefighting methods according to the situation. The real challenge lies in providing immediate care to injured people, he said.

"We haven't come up with any new ways of putting out fires. Water still puts them out," Chief Heller said. "The EMS [emergency medical services] is a constantly changing field."

About 70 percent of all Howard County calls -- mainly resulting from traffic accidents and heart attacks -- require emergency medical services.

Last year, the department received 14,668 service calls, Chief Heller said, of which 10,250 were for emergency medical service and 4,418 for fires. The department has about 435 firefighters, including its career, part-time and volunteer workers.

Chief Heller said he wants the department to be a noticeable force in the community. "We have to look at nontraditional things we can do," he said. "Citizens have to feel like they're getting their money's worth, not just when they call 911."

The department already runs a program in which fire personnel provide inspection of smoke detectors. Fire officials want to expand their community services to providing dietary tips, bicycle safety instructions and even a program in which each of the 11 fire stations would adopt a senior citizens center and visit the residents.

The panels' members are Dr. William Fabbri, an emergency room physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center; John Miller, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employee; Bruce Walz, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County's emergency health services program; and Ken Brown, a certified state paramedic instructor and former firefighter.

Also, Don Graham, president of the West Friendship Volunteer Firefighter's Association; Andrew Lester, a paramedic at Rivers Park Fire Station; and Battalion Chief Don Howell, head of the fire department's emergency medical services division.

Fire officials said they chose the members because of their interest in the care system and for diversity of opinion. Officials are looking for two more citizens to join the panel.

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