OC Fire Department Proposes Fiscal Cuts

OCEAN CITY – Chief Chris Larmore knows there’s a fine line between cutting costs and cutting corners on the services provided by the Ocean City Fire Department, and that line was made a bit clearer on Monday night at City Hall.

Larmore gave his monthly report to the Mayor and Council and outlined some tactical changes that will help the fire department stay current with the city’s ongoing trend of spending cuts, while still upholding the same level of high quality service to ensure public safety.

“When I was appointed, my primary goal and direction of this body was to build a better fire service for the entire town. It’s a quite difficult challenge to try to deliver the best service in what will clearly be a very tough financial time, much less make the department better which is our objective”, said Larmore.

Larmore outlined seven items, totaling almost $1 million, some of which have already been implemented by the department, which would slightly alter the service provided to the public.

For instance, when a call comes in for emergency service, Larmore said that there will continue to be a “code response” or a rapid deployment of vehicles with lights and sirens, but the change will be the tactics used by the department once they get to the scene.

“When we get there and the patient is assessed based on the severity of the incident, somewhere in the area of 60-70 percent of the patients don’t have life threatening injuries and we will transport those patients to the hospital in a non-emergency mode, thus saving on fuel, maintenance of the equipment, and from a liability standpoint,” he said.

Though the savings might be minimal by simply implementing this practice, Larmore said that it would also improve public safety if the emergency vehicles were not traveling at the high rates of speed and sense of urgency used in “code response” and when applicable, using normal mode.

With all of the amendments to the service, however, Larmore said that the emergency situations would still be handled with the highest sense of urgency.

“We don’t want citizens to think that we are lessening the service just because we are modifying it a bit.  We’ll send the cavalry if there is a house on fire or a life threatening situation,” he said.

Other tactical changes included reducing the number of crews that respond to “silent alarms” to one four-man crew, thus saving between $300-500 per instance and an estimated $300,000 per year.

“Historically, over 90 percent of silent alarms can be handled by one crew, and if information is relayed to us that an upgraded response is needed, they would be dispatched immediately,” said Larmore.

An additional $150,000 is expected to be saved by eliminating the purchase of smaller items tools like hoses, tools and non-operational supplies, and overtime pay will be cut back by requiring department heads to fill in time gaps rather than paying personnel for additional time on the clock. Larmore also conceded out-of-area training for his fleet, saving an estimated $85,000 by training the volunteers and career fireman in town and also eliminating the teaching provided by out-of-town instructors that would normally be paid overtime for doing so.

Though the Mayor and City Council were behind Larmore’s cuts and tactical changes, they did take umbrage with one line item in the outline and that was number seven, which proposed a cut back in the number of first response paramedic crews from three to two.

“I agree with items one through six,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic, “but I am highly against any reduction in paramedic crews. The citizens need and deserve all paramedics to be there as soon as possible, especially in those situations when every minute counts.”

Mitrecic’s thoughts were mirrored by Councilman Doug Cymek who was “adamantly opposed” to the idea as was Mary Knight and Joe Hall, who ironically enough, had cited a similar scale-back in first response paramedic crews in a recent letter to the editor that he penned in order to get the public involved.

“My letter wasn’t an endorsement of a change, but it was the most attention grabbing item to get the public’s attention. Though this may not be the area that we cut, it is responsible to explore it,” said Hall.

Larmore admitted that item seven was the one that the department “had the most question with, and needed the council’s guidance” and the idea was “simply an option, not a recommendation.”

The citizens might get the final say on this matter, despite council advising Larmore to keep the current number of paramedic crews as first responders, as Joe Hall’s letter will be one of the subject’s brought up at a Jan. 27 work session.

“The citizens are the ones that should decide the levels of service that we provide, and as Councilman Hall alluded to, are the citizens willing to meet some of these reductions in order to help us balance this budget? That’s what it’s going to come down to,” said Larmore.

Currently, first response paramedic crews respond to calls anywhere from six to eight minutes, and Hall’s letter challenged the public to speak out.

“The question, Is the four-minute plus delay in arrival to your emergency worth the savings that could be realized? I’m not qualified to decide alone what level you’re willing to accept or what will meet your personal needs; you must let the full council know what you want and can afford,” said Hall in his letter.