Mutual aid or treasury raid?

Regional pact: Fees by Carroll volunteer companies across county lines a broader issue to be resolved.

February 08, 1999

THE decision of Carroll County volunteer fire departments to charge for ambulance service -- including when they cross into Baltimore County to cover emergencies -- has prompted complaints from Baltimore County officials. They claim the change violates an agreement that Baltimore City and the five metropolitan-area counties signed in 1989 to share emergency services when needed.

Baltimore County paints the fees as a blow to "regionalism." But it's more complex than that. The question isn't whether the cross-county service will be provided -- it will. The debate is over who will pay for it, especially since the jurisdictions operate and fund emergency services differently.

Baltimore County contends that ambulance bills sent to its residents served by the Hampstead fire company violate the agreement that no county is to charge another for emergency service. Carroll's lawyer claims the billing -- begun last month by most volunteer fire companies to defray soaring ambulance costs -- does not violate the accord. Last year, Carroll's all-volunteer fire companies answered 1,700 out-of-county emergencies.

Carroll volunteer units bill insurance companies and Medicare for ambulance service. But they pledged they won't dun individuals, though federal law requires all service recipients to be billed.

A basic cause of the problem is the different structures of fire and emergency services. Carroll and Harford counties have only volunteer companies, which have the legal autonomy to raise funds. Baltimore City has paid firefighters. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties use a mix of volunteers and paid personnel.

The issue has affected other counties. Anne Arundel is considering ambulance charges. Baltimore City admitted to wrongly charging Baltimore County residents. Baltimore County may rethink its ambulance coverage, which relies heavily on Carroll units in its northwest quadrant.

The legal dispute is murky; Baltimore County seeks a state law. Instead, we hope the problem can be resolved amicably to maintain prompt, life-saving responses from all stations and counties.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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