Answering the fire alarm Emergency-fire services need more tax dollars to meet demands.

February 03, 1997

SOARING DEMAND for fire and emergency medical services in Carroll County is overwhelming the resources of the largely all-volunteer fire companies.

The need is for more staff and more money to support these critical emergency services, particularly in Sykesville-Freedom District and Westminster companies, which together handle nearly half the ambulance or emergency medicine calls in the county.

The number of volunteers is stagnant or in decline in recent years at those volunteer fire companies. It's a shortfall that won't be met by more advertising and publicity for volunteers.

Shifts must be filled, especially in the emergency medical services, and the trend toward more paid technicians must be accelerated to maintain qualified staffing levels for a rapidly growing county.

That will probably also mean a shift from the current county contribution formula, which uniformly provides 75 percent of the operating budget for each of the 14 volunteer companies. Fire companies with the lion's share of calls naturally have a greater gap to fill from their own funds, a gap that is significantly widening in the major growth areas around the county seat of Westminster and in South Carroll.

Sykesville-Freedom has seen an increase of one-third in emergency medical calls over the past five year, with no increase in its corps of volunteers. The county pays most (but not all) of the cost of two paramedics for daytime coverage. But the volunteer company pays for two paramedics covering overnight shifts.

Two volunteer companies are beginning to charge patients (rather, their health insurers) for ambulance service. That has been unpopular elsewhere, raising questions about payment ability influencing responses to calls.

The county budget can't foot the entire bill for fire-emergency services. Volunteer service and fund-raising remain the foundation of the system. Yes, Westminster raised $1.5 million for a new station -- but that's not the same as raising the operating budget for a station that answers 2,700 emergency medical calls a year.

It is time to realize that the county budget must give more to support these vital community services, just as it pays for schools, libraries and roads. Chicken dinners and voluntary donations are not enough to meet the need.

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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