Firefighters call for more engine drivers

Shortage causing slower response times, they say

`It's almost a crisis'

Association wants county to fund up to 14 positions

November 09, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Carroll County volunteer firefighters are complaining of a shortage of qualified engine drivers, which they say has led to slower response times and an increase in the number of calls that a station must pass on to a neighboring fire company.

Representatives of the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association say the county should pay for 12 of the 14 fire stations to have a full-time driver.

There is already $200,000 in the budget for six paid drivers, but firefighters haven't hired anyone yet. They say they are going to meet with county commissioners to request another $200,000 for the additional paid drivers.

The firefighters say that not having enough paid personnel who are assigned and trained to drive pumpers, ladder trucks and special rescue and medical units means that firefighters are sometimes stranded at the station, forced to hand off the call to a station farther from the emergency.

"You have a crew but if the department doesn't have a qualified driver, they can't respond," said Bob Cumberland, spokesman for Westminster Fire Engine & Hose Company No. 1. "A lot of times an officer may end up driving and he can't do two jobs at once and do it right. He can't operate the pumps and oversee the emergency and make sure everybody's safe."

Richard Green Sr., the 1st assistant chief of the Gamber & Community Volunteer Fire Company, says that his company has one person alternating between driving an ambulance and a fire engine.

"The other day at Gamber we went out on a woods fire and our ambulance driver was driving the fire engine and our paramedic was fighting a fire, then we got a medic call but no one was at the station to drive the ambulance," said Green, who is chairman of the committee that came up with the proposal for more drivers.

The volunteer firefighters also say some companies -- in Westminster and Reese -- have been forced to pay for drivers out of their own pockets, and that officers and paramedics are sometimes pulled away from their duties to drive vehicles.

The county commissioners had no comment on the proposal because they had not yet seen it, said county chief of staff Steven D. Powell.

In 1999, the county budgeted $500,000 to firefighters for paid drivers, but association members could not agree on how to split the money.

At the firemen's association's monthly meeting on Monday, Green's committee unveiled a four-year plan that would give 12 of the county's 14 volunteer fire companies a full-time paid driver who would operate fire trucks. Eventually, the county's two busiest stations -- Westminster and Sykesville -- would each receive two drivers.

Fire companies say that the addition of more paid drivers would speed responses. The increase in Carroll's population has, some say, taxed the county's emergency service providers, who responded to about 6,000 fire calls and 13,000 ambulance calls last year.

The committee recommended a starting salary of $33,333 for drivers, a figure that they say is in line with what surrounding counties pay.

The association established three criteria for companies to be eligible for the increased money: the companies must service an area with a population of more than 8,000; the company must have a specialized piece of equipment; and it must have a late or no-response rate of greater than 5 percent.

New Windsor and Harney did not meet the eligibility requirements.

Eleven companies voted in favor of the proposal, and the companies from New Windsor and Winfield voted against it. Manchester's company abstained.

After the vote, association president Thomas J. Van de Bussche said, "We lost this program before, so let's not lose it again folks. Let's move forward."

Green says the fire companies are mostly in agreement on the issue now.

"In the last four years, the population's grown and people in the fire department are having more trouble getting out than before," he said. "The amount of calls have gone up and we're realizing now it's almost a crisis. We have to do something."

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