Base to cut EMS shifts

Fort Meade paramedics to end 24-hour duty

Savings of $400,000 a year

Arundel, other counties to provide backup service

Anne Arundel

March 26, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Fort Meade will sharply reduce its round-the-clock emergency response services and rely instead on off-post ambulances from surrounding counties to answer 911 calls at the Odenton base in the next two weeks.

Base officials notified the Army post's paramedics and the Anne Arundel County Fire Department this week that, effective April 5, Fort Meade paramedics no longer will work 24 hours a day. Instead, the base's paramedics will work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and also be off on weekends and holidays.

The cuts for paramedics, who work out of the Army's Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, will save the Army about $400,000 a year - roughly half the cost of running the 12-paramedic, three-ambulance unit, said Fort Meade EMS spokesman James Goetz.

John Peters, Kimbrough's EMS and primary care chief, said the staff began looking for ways to cut costs at the Army's request. Peters said the staff surveyed call volumes and concluded the new hours covered the base during peak times.

The prospect of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department picking up Fort Meade emergency calls comes at a difficult time for the department, which is struggling with poor response times, a staffing crunch and heavy reliance on overtime for paramedics.

Goetz and his fellow Fort Meade paramedics, who are Department of Defense employees, worry that the cost-saving measure may compromise care to soldiers and their families.

"If you're seeing a reduction in service, and one life is lost, what cost is that?" he asked. "Is it worth it to save $400,000 a year for that life? My answer is no."

Fort Meade's paramedics can reach just about any office or residence on the 5,000-acre post in about five minutes, Goetz said.

That includes the National Security Agency, one of the state's largest employers; the regional headquarters for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and the Defense Department's journalism and public-affairs school.

About 6,000 military families live on post, and several thousand military retirees visit daily to shop, eat and golf.

The closest Anne Arundel County EMS unit is in Jessup. Even without traffic, Goetz estimates it would take a Jessup ambulance 15 minutes to reach the guarded post. Then the ambulance crew could have to wait in line at the guard shack.

And that's assuming the Jessup ambulances aren't tending to calls at the prisons or otherwise tied up in the fast-growing western Arundel suburbs.

The change coincides with turmoil in the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

Last week, county fire Chief Roger C. Simonds was forced out after telling an accreditation agency that the department was too unstable and fiscally troubled to seek re-accreditation. The county was already investigating the department's soaring overtime costs - money Simonds said he needed to spend because of staffing problems.

Anne Arundel County Fire Department spokesman John M. Scholz said he learned of Fort Meade's plans yesterday and wasn't sure how it would affect the already strapped department.

"We're only now researching the impact it would have on us," Scholz said.

Fort Meade paramedics estimate the reduction in hours will amount to about an 18 percent pay cut. Many already work second jobs to supplement salaries that hover around $40,000 a year. Only three paramedics live near the base; the other nine live more than 50 miles away.

Steve Hyatt, who commutes 85 miles each way from Jefferson County, W.Va., said most don't mind the commute because paramedics work long shifts and don't have to make the trip every day.

Fort Meade paramedics also worry about possible security breaches stemming from unknown emergency vehicles entering NSA, the top-secret eavesdropping agency off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Peters, though, said Anne Arundel and Howard County ambulances already respond to Fort Meade. He said that soldiers on the base can step in to fill the breach when the post is in lockdown mode, as it was after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It's a scary change, and it sounds like a big deal," Peters said. "But this is far less of a change than when Fort Meade downsized Kimbrough from a hospital to an ambulatory care center."

That change, which occurred in 1995, turned the 36-bed general hospital into a clinic, cutting about 130 jobs and saving a projected $50 million over 20 years.

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