By Julie E. Greene
January 20, 2020
Washington County public-safety leaders are cautiously optimistic after the county commissioners recently authorized a plan to hire 36 full-time firefighters over the next few years to help many volunteer companies that are struggling to retain and recruit volunteers. County officials, like many community leaders across the country, have been discussing in recent years how to help volunteer fire companies.
The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association held a meeting Thursday night, just two days after the commissioners authorized the plan. Dale Fishack, elected as the association’s president earlier this month, said no one asked any questions or discussed the plan after Emergency Service Director R. David Hays presented it at the meeting.
From informal feedback, Fishack said public-safety officials are hopeful but guarded.
Some emergency services leaders got the impression, by the way the motion was worded, that the staffing plan would only happen if the county gets a federal grant, or that the vote didn’t cover other aspects of the plan presented to the commissioners, Fishack said. The entire plan, costing more than $5.5 million, involves additional funding for EMS companies and incentives to help volunteer fire/EMS companies and volunteers. There also was concern the plan is not in cement because state officials are still determining how the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations to improve education across the state will affect the county government’s budget.
Commissioner Cort Meinelschmidt, who made the motion to authorize the plan, reiterated late last week that he meant the plan was authorized with or without the county securing a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant. The priority is to try to get a SAFER grant so fire staffing can be increased faster, Meinelschmidt said.
Both Meinelschmidt and Commissioners President Jeff Cline have said funding for parts of the plan will still have to go through the annual budget approval process, especially because the county is expecting to have to increase public education funding due to Kirwan. Depending on that and whether the county gets the grant, there might be a need to tweak how many firefighters are added in a given year, Meinelschmidt said.
The county will continue to provide a pool of part-time paid firefighters — 23, currently — to assist companies in need, Hays has said. All but four fire companies outside Hagerstown have been using the part-time firefighters, requesting on average 3,200 hours total in assistance every month, according to an email from Operations Manager Sam Anderson. On average, the county is able to fill about 60% of requests for those part-time hours.
In December, 1,905 service hours were provided by the county’s part-time firefighters. Since March 2018, the monthly service hours peaked at 2,145 hours last July. The four companies that haven’t requested part-time help are Sharpsburg, Smithsburg, Leitersburg and Halfway, Anderson wrote.
Several public-safety leaders said in the past week they were glad to see the commissioners do something to help fire and EMS. There are still at least some who hoped for more, who questioned how four fire stations were chosen to be the base of operations for extra personnel, and who want to know how it all is going to work.
Ed Williams, vice president of the First Hose Co. of Boonsboro, said he thought the commissioners “wisely and responsibly took a small step to prepare for the future.” His colleague on the EMS side, Boonsboro Ambulance & Rescue Service Chief Morgan Boyd, said it would have been better for the community to have county-paid, full-time firefighters at every fire station and have the county take over employment of the EMS staffs. But the county has financial constraints, Boyd acknowledged.
Hagerstown Fire Chief Steve Lohr said the county is clearly relying on Hagerstown Fire to “fill in” coverage for the central part of the county. But Lohr said the plan authorized last week didn’t address his hope the county would “fairly fund city assets, both volunteer and career.” Lohr said he’s been advocating for the past four budget years for county funding to help the Hagerstown Fire Department.
Cline said every fire company in the county has asked for help and stressed the county’s plan is “the beginning.” He also noted support the county has provided for projects in the city, including the Washington County Free Library renovation and addition in downtown Hagerstown; public schools in the city; the transit center; the senior center. He also mentioned the public-safety training center to be built that is planned to serve city and county emergency officials.
The plan authorized last week calls for the county to hire enough full-time firefighters or firefighter/paramedics to, along with existing county staff, provide three positions 24/7 at four fire stations around the county, so those firefighters can aid responders in their region. In addition, the county would keep providing a paramedic 24/7 at the Rohrersville fire station and would provide a firefighter 24/7 at the Hancock fire station.
Hays said the county has a greater chance of getting a SAFER grant by staffing regional fire stations than it did under its previous grant application that provided a firefighter driver for every volunteer fire station. The county missed out on a SAFER grant last fall when it sought funding to hire 29 full-time firefighters.
Talking to peers who have secured SAFER grants, Hays said the driver-only plan didn’t meet the National Fire Protection Association Standard of having at least three firefighters responding on an engine. The peer review committee looking at grant applications looks strongly at that standard when determining who gets grants, Hays said. The new plan calls for additional firefighters to be based at fire stations in Clear Spring, Leitersburg, Williamsport and Sharpsburg. Written agreements still need to be worked out with each regional station, Hays said.