Fire station eyed for cut

All-volunteer staffing possible at Ferndale in budget tightening

`Only an option'

6 paid firefighters could be transferred to other posts

April 26, 2001|By Scott Calvert and Laura Barnhardt | Scott Calvert and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Told by County Executive Janet S. Owens to trim his budget request, Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds Sr. has proposed making the Ferndale Fire Station the county's first all-volunteer operation in decades, according to the area's County Council member.

"He's cutting six paid firefighters out of my district," said an unhappy Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat. The station, mostly staffed by volunteers, would lose the two paid firefighters who are on duty for each of the three shifts.

Transferring the six firefighters elsewhere in the county would save $500,000 next year by reducing overtime costs and the need for new hiring, Beidle said.

Fire officials emphasized yesterday that the proposal is "only an option," as Division Chief John M. Scholz, the department spokesman, put it.

At the same time, Owens has abandoned plans to raise property taxes after signaling for weeks that an increase was likely. Her 11th-hour decision means the county will not see the $6.8 million expected from the increase that had been expected to be 1.8 cents per $100 in property value.

Owens decided last week to ditch the increase - the maximum allowed under the county's voter-approved tax revenue limit - after elderly residents complained that even a $60 tax increase would make it harder for them to afford prescription drugs, according to spokesman John A. Morris.

Council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, said Owens told her she could leave the tax rate alone without "touching services."

"She seemed very up about it," Murphy said of a meeting last week. Owens, who raised taxes last year for the first time since 1996, was in New York yesterday and unavailable for comment.

Murphy said she had heard that in addition to making Ferndale all-volunteer, fire officials were planning to pull out a new paramedic unit at Riviera Beach. But she said Owens told her that would "absolutely not" happen.

Owens will unveil her budget proposal Tuesday; it's not clear whether cuts were required of other departments.

Even if Ferndale loses its career staff, Scholz said, there are no plans to close the station. "We will still be funding the station," he said. "The fire equipment will remain there. We will support the operations. There are absolutely no proposals to close it."

But Beidle said she fears it would close eventually. "This makes me want to go through the fire budget with a fine-tooth comb," she said, promising to fight the all-volunteer proposal, which would need council approval.

Keith W. Wright, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters union, said it is premature to discuss the budget's potential impact on emergency operations.

But, he said, "Even though Ferndale has good statistics for volunteers, obviously making a station all-volunteer will have an impact on service. When you just rely solely upon volunteers, sometimes they are there to respond. Sometimes, they just can't be."

Because most volunteer firefighters work jobs that aren't flexible enough to allow them to be on call 24 hours a day, there are often problems with daytime staffing. Scholz said one reason Ferndale was chosen is that it has many active volunteers and a record of using them for emergency calls.

"We believe the volunteers would step up and fill the void," Scholz said. There are also several other fire stations nearby that could quickly respond to emergency calls that Ferndale handles, he said.

Still, it would be difficult for anyone in the county to say how an all-volunteer station would function because there hasn't been a station in Arundel staffed entirely by volunteers in several decades.

All 28 fire stations and paramedic units are staffed by one or more career firefighters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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