Firefighters face deadline for exams

Carroll limits their role if physicals aren't taken

December 31, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

As of tomorrow, any Carroll County volunteer firefighter who hasn't undergone a physical examination will not be allowed to participate on emergency calls.

Officials in the county's Volunteer Emergency Services Association hoped the Jan. 1 deadline would spur more regular screenings among the 14 volunteer fire companies that serve the county.

Since physical examinations became a part of the association's health and safety program in 1995, fire officials said it has been a struggle to get volunteers into medical centers for routine examinations.

"It's not a program to keep people out," said Bill Eyler, the head of the association's health and safety committee and a longtime volunteer firefighter in Pleasant Valley. "It's a program to keep them in and riding."

Physical examinations assure the county's residents that they are getting fully qualified firefighters, he said. Fire chiefs agreed in 2003 to set the Jan. 1, 2005, deadline to reel reluctant firefighters into the examinations.

Eyler said Carroll County's requirements are among the most stringent in the state.

Under the chiefs' agreement, firefighters who do not meet the deadline will be sidelined until they undergo a physical examination.

Fire officials said they count on physical examinations every year to catch lurking diseases that might crop up unexpectedly and hamper firefighters' ability to respond to emergencies.

Heart conditions, cancer and diabetes are some ailments that doctors discover in these annual rituals, which are required of any volunteer or paid personnel who rides to an emergency -- drivers, hazardous material personnel and paramedics.

"We haven't lost anybody because they've gotten problems corrected in time," said Leon Fleming, the association's liaison to county government.

647 have exams

This year, 647 firefighters had physical examinations in two venues -- at Carroll Occupational Health Services and with Dr. Dean Griffin. Most of the exams, 537, were done by Griffin.

The 110 exams at Carroll Occupation Health Services were done within the previous six months.

"It was a rush at the very end," Fleming said. "Some people procrastinated."

In 2003, 526 firefighters had physical examinations. Thirty-eight examinations are scheduled in the new year.

Fleming said these physicals are tailored for firefighters and include tests for lung capacity, heart disease, stress levels and flexibility.

Volunteer Emergency Services Association officials said volunteer firefighters should not have to shoulder the financial burden of the physicals, which could cost $500. Some of their younger volunteers, they said, do not have health insurance.

Fire officials are waiting for the Carroll commissioners, who have said they are committed to the health and safety of the first responders, to grant requests for more than $200,000 in additional funds to administer the physicals.

$200,000 cut

Last year, the association asked the county for $375,000 to pay for physical examinations. The county cut $200,000 from the request.

The volunteer association sent out surveys last year to find out how many volunteers in the county's 14 fire companies need physical examinations, which they said helps the association establish a concrete number of firefighters.

Association officials said the lack of an accurate count hinders their ability to justify their growing expenses to the county. They said they believe that the county's estimate of the number of volunteers working in Carroll's fire companies is too low at 500. Fire officials said the number is closer to 850.

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