Fire units need more staffing, study says Ecker sees no need for increase in tax

April 03, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

A long-awaited report released yesterday affirms that many of Howard County's fire trucks are understaffed -- including six of the county's 10 busiest fire units and recommends the county immediately hire 23 firefighters and up to 19 more next year.

The report the product of a task force formed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker last December -- also recommended that the county improve work schedules for career firefighters and implement volunteer crew duty assignments.

If all the recommendations are followed, the report says, the county fire department's long-standing problem with staffing shortages should be resolved.

But to carry out all of the task force's recommendations would require a $400,000 infusion into the county budget for the 1997 fiscal year, which begins July 1, and a 1-cent increase in the county's fire tax in the 1998 fiscal year.

The 1-cent increase in the fire tax on property owners would pay for the additional 19 firefighters recommended to be hired next year.

But Mr. Ecker opposes the 1-cent increase in the fire tax now set at 24 cents per $100 of assessed value -- because he believes that the fire department's staff shortages may be overstated, even in the task force report.

However, fire officials say that, without the 19 additional firefighters, county fire vehicles would remain below the recommended levels of staffing by trained personnel: two for ambulances, three for engine trucks and four for large fire trucks.

"Those levels will not consistently be met," said James Heller, director of the county's fire and rescue services and a member of the task force that studied the understaffing issue.

Other task force members also say the the 1-cent tax increase is needed.

"I think basically it was an adequate solution," said Wilbur Coyle, a Simpsonville resident and member of the task force. "It's not perfect, but it's adequate."

And County Councilman Charles C. Feaga said he supports a fire tax increase, but he added: "We'll never have the number [of firefighters] we want. We'll never have a police car and a fire truck in everybody's driveway."

Mr. Ecker commissioned the study of the staff-shortage issue last December amid reports in The Sun that showed how residents in some Howard County areas face potential risks because too few firefighters respond on some county fire vehicles.

According to the report released yesterday, some county fire vehicles such as Engine 71 of the Banneker Station in Columbia's Town Center never reached their staffing minimums in 1995. Engine 71 ranked second among the most often used units.

Tower 10, of the Rivers Park Fire Station in Columbia's Kings Contrivance village, ranked third and also failed to meet recommended staffing minimums in 1995.

The county's metropolitan fire tax rate was increased in 1994 by 2 cents to 24 cents to help fund the 23 firefighter jobs that the task force recommends filling now.

Those positions have to yet to be filled because an additional $400,000 is needed -- money the county is expected to add to the budget for the coming fiscal year. Mr. Ecker supports doing that, but he doesn't support funding the additional 19 positions that the task force recommends filling next year.

"If the life and safety of the residents was an issue it would be one thing," he said. "I don't think it's a problem."

To avoid further tax increases, Mr. Ecker said, he would like to see the department be more innovative about adjusting firefighters' work schedules.

He also suggested using volunteers more.

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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