County Discusses Funding West Ocean City-Based Ambulance

WEST OCEAN CITY — A lack of ambulance coverage based in West Ocean City could be remedied this year, as the Worcester County Commissioners discussed Tuesday options on how to bring a dedicated ambulance to the area.

With the budget due for finalization in a few weeks, however, whether or not action will be taken this year is uncertain.

Having an ambulance housed in West Ocean City, specifically at the Keyser Point Road Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company (OCVFC) station, has been on the county’s radar for years. Currently, West Ocean City relies on the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) for EMS service. There have long been fears that the service is vulnerable since an ambulance crew must travel from Ocean City to West Ocean City.

“If the [Route 50] bridge is up, that’s where the problem comes in,” said Commission President Bud Church. “If there’s a traffic accident on the bridge or the bridge goes up, the response time could be terrible.”

It’s not uncommon for Ocean City to experience traffic jams and accidents during the busy summer season. The commissioners all voiced a desire to mitigate the risk of long response times by having an ambulance and crew housed right in West Ocean City.

“I think we should really look into providing an ambulance for that firehouse,” Commissioner Louise Gulyas said to Church, “but I don’t know how to pay for it … I think it’s very important that we cover that out there because, as you say, the bridge will be up.”

While the commission was supportive, this is not a new issue and the same obstacles that existed years ago persist. The most obvious of those obstacles is finding an ambulance that can be housed in West Ocean City throughout the year. Church noted that a lot of fire companies have spare ambulances that see little use during the fall and winter but that the demand spikes so much in the summer it would be difficult to rely on a vehicle being loaned for the full year.

The county could look into using a private company that provides ambulance service. But Commissioner Virgil Shockley was dismissive of the idea, pointing out that the cost would be extraordinary for coverage the entire year. This leaves purchasing an ambulance to be housed at the station the most likely option though Shockley explained that wouldn’t be cheap, either.

“To outfit an ambulance you’re up to $400,000. The base unit itself is probably $260,000,” he said. “By the time you put everything in, you’re looking at another, low-side $100,000, high-side $140,000.”

Shockley pointed out that the county reimburses the OCFD significantly for extending EMS coverage into West Ocean City.

“So they’re getting $300,000 basically, county money, for those ambulances. I think that somehow there needs to be an ambulance in West Ocean City at Keyser Point Road. Having said that, I don’t know how we do it,” Shockley said.

There’s also the matter of providing trained EMS crews that would be able to operate the ambulance in West Ocean City when called upon. Shockley felt that if the county was able to provide the ambulance then West Ocean City would be able to supply enough trained volunteers to use it.

“So if they’re gone that’s where your volunteers step in just like they did years ago before we went ahead and funded this formula so you could have full time,” he said.

Having volunteers provide the backbone of the EMS service was acceptable to Gulyas though she also believed it would be a good idea to have some paid employees associated with the West Ocean City location.

“I really think that you should think about putting an ambulance out there. If you want to rely on volunteers for West Ocean City, fine,” she said, “but I think that you’re going to have to have somebody else, a paid paramedic, to work there.”

There was consensus among the commission to explore the idea. However, with a final budget due to be adopted next month and the county already facing a multi-million dollar deficit, there was uncertainty as to what kind of timeline the county will be able to advance.

With only a few weeks’ notice, Commissioner Judy Boggs told her colleagues that she wasn’t sure if they could do a good job in putting the project together for this budget. She suggested that representatives from the county, the fire marshal’s office and local fire departments should get together to form some kind of plan. She also expressed doubts as to how easily the county would be able to run a West Ocean City ambulance with volunteers.

But a lot of the leg work and planning has already been done.

“I’ve got about 85 percent of that done. I think I’ve had four meetings with the different groups trying to work this out,” said Church. “So probably in a week I could put this together.”

The issue is scheduled for further discussion this month and the county intends on getting input from all of the interested parties.