As volunteer numbers drop, department emphasizes need for more paid staff
By Greg Ellison
(Jan. 13, 2022) Immediate costs for additional staffing and long-term expenses to transition to an all-paid staff dominated budget planning discussions with the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department last Wednesday.
OP Fire President Dave VanGasbeck, Chief Steve Grunewald and Capt. Harvey Booth reviewed estimates with the Budget and Finance Committee on Jan. 5, after presenting numbers during a meeting on Dec. 22.
Among the larger budget requests for fire/EMS services are two additional paid positions.
“Currently we have three paramedic firefighters on duty 24 hours a day and four … on 12 hours a day,” VanGasbeck said.
Booth attributed the proposed staff increase to higher call volumes and steadily decreasing volunteer ranks.
Booth said in 2020 the department responded to more than 1,700 calls for service, with roughly 1,160 involving medical transport.
“An EMS unit must respond on all fire responses [per] Worcester County policy,” he said. “We run a significant amount of EMS responses while the first crew is out … or helping nearby areas.”
Also taking part in the budget talks were several board members, including Director Frank Daly who asked how often a crew was out responding when another emergency call was received.
Booth about 280 calls were received within a 10-minute time period in 2020.
“We moved two staff from part-time to full-time,” he said. “This helps cover four shifts during the day.”
OPA President Larry Perrone asked why the department is requesting additional crew when it failed to increase estimated billing for transport services to medical facilities.
“If you are adding more head count to do more calls, then the percent of calls that would generate EMS billing should go up,” he said. “Otherwise, why do you need additional people?”
Booth replied that all staff are cross-trained as firefighters and EMTs.
“Our basic call volume has slowly increased,” he said.
Again citing 2020 numbers, Booth also said more than 450 responses did not involve transport.
Grunewald said the level of need for emergency services in subsequent years remains unknown.
“We can’t predict call volumes,” he said.
Booth said the proposed staff expansion would allow the department to have four crew members on duty 24 hours a day.
“It’s not related to the number of calls,” he said.
Perrone’s perspective remained unchanged.
“That’s an explanation; I’m just not sure I accept it,” he said.
Grunewald said another challenge is the continuous loss of volunteer members.
“Everybody across the country is losing volunteers,” he said.
He also said the volunteer pool in Ocean Pines typically includes retired members from departments in other regions.
“We have less young cadets,” he said. “The volunteers are just not here.”
Booth said other challenges include average patient weights increasing from 200 pounds in past years to roughly 275 pounds currently.
“We have more equipment,” he said. “It’s heavier and it requires more manpower for us to do things.”
Perrone said the potential increase to assessment fees tied to adding staff is significant.
“This is a gigantic ask,’ he said.
Perrone requested overtime pay and salary details for the department.
VanGasbeck said the relevant figures were presented to the Budget and Finance Committee last month.
“It needs to go to the full board,” Perrone said.
Director Doug Parks took a different tack.
“I don’t see the correlation between adding staff and automatically worrying about an increase in EMS billing,” he said.
Parks said limiting expense increases was of greater importance.
“It’s a big ask but I don’t have the same concerns,” he said. “I believe we should add staff based on the operational analysis that the folks at the fire department have done in order to maintain that very important aspect of safety within Ocean Pines.”
Perrone agreed, up to a point.
“Safety is important, but we need more details regarding salaries and benefit costs for the department,” he said.
General Manager John Viola said detailed salary and benefit costs for the fire department would be forwarded to all board members.
In response to questions about precisely how the department determines the need to add staff, Grunewald said Berlin’s fire department has four crew members on duty 24 hours, with the count even higher in Pocomoke.
“We are the most populated area in Worcester County,” he said.
VanGasbeck said the National Fire Protection Association focuses on response times, with six minutes the target in the Pines.
Daly said the main concern should be how rapid emergency responders arrive.
“We, as a board, need to consider that as a sacred time,” he said.
Daly said any moves that would increase response time should be abandoned.
“I think we should not be ‘Mickey Mousing’ around it,” he said. “It’s a cornerstone of the community to have public safety.”
Daly also said discussions on the direction of the fire department have touched on abandoning the volunteer element.
“At some point in time in the future, we’re looking at a full-time paid fire department to protect our community,” he said.
Grunewald backed up Daly’s assertion.
“That’s 100 percent correct, Mr. Daly,” he said. “This whole thing is very important and Mr. Perrone, I’m sorry, but you’re on record saying, ‘Why don’t we get rid of the fire department.”
Perrone denied having said that, with VanGasbeck quickly taking exception.
“He said that in two meetings,” VanGasbeck said.
Grunewald acknowledged the Ocean Pines transfer agreement with original developer Boise Cascade required fire and EMS services be provided.
“Again, Mr. Perrone, you’re on record saying, ‘We have to have that, but we don’t have to use you,’” he said.
Perrone clarified his position.
“Let’s be clear, I never said we don’t need the fire department,” he said. “I did say that our DRs (Declaration of Restrictions) require us to provide fire protection, but it doesn’t say we have to provide it through you guys.”
Perrone added that his views reflected discussions of building a new fire house.
“Doing my job as the president of the association, I need to make sure what’s being asked here is appropriate,” he said. “I’m 100 percent behind fire and EMS, but we need to explain the cost to our community.”
Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Dick Keiling suggested researching other ways to bring in revenue to reduce the financial dependency on Pines residents.
Grunewald, who in addition to volunteering with the fire department is chairman of the Worcester County Volunteer Firemen’s Association, said recent requests to increase county funding have had no results.
“We are trying every year to get more money from the county,” he said. “I’m willing to try anything, but we do this on an annual basis.”