Salisbury Council Agrees To Address EMT Shortfall

SALISBURY – The City Council approved a budget amendment this week to fund additional firefighter/EMT positions.

According to the ordinance before the council on Monday, the Salisbury Fire Department (SFD) has a need for an additional four Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and there are insufficient funds available in the FY 15 Fire Department Budget to fund them.

If approved, the ordinance would amend the FY 15 General Fund Budget by increasing the Fire Department’s Budget by $160,611 from surplus.

The amendment came about when a $1.4 million Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that was awarded to the City of Salisbury in 2012 expired a couple weeks ago. The grant had funded a total of 12 firefighter/EMTs.

“Eleven remaining SAFER officers have been hired part-time, so it is our contention that we are moving to make sure that every one of those trucks that come out of our fire stations has the required amount of people on it,” Mayor Jim Ireton said on Monday.

According to Ireton, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires four firefighters/EMTs on each fire truck that leaves the station.

“Right now, we have five firefighters assigned to each truck. This amendment is for four to make sure we address the issues the chief has brought to us about vacations and sick days,” the mayor said. “I appreciate the council saying they want an amendment. I did not know this two weeks ago. The minute I knew it we figured out what we could do for you, and we believe this is a good plan moving forward.”

Councilman Jack Heath could not help but express disappointment with the last-minute decision having to pull from surplus.

“I fully support the need for the firemen. However, I am not a big fan of using surplus funds. Surplus funds are for emergencies. I think we missed an opportunity when we knew that the SAFER grant was going to end by a certain date, and if we believed in our heart of hearts, which we do obviously, that these firemen were critical we should have budgeted for at that time and the accommodations made,” he said. “I would hope in the future that we would look towards these kinds of things in our budgeting process to make sure that we have the critical pieces to serve the public safety interest of our citizens without having to go into our surplus account to address something that should have been avoided.”

Having been on the receiving end of EMS services, Council Vice President Laura Mitchell supported the amendment.

“It is critical that we have the confidence of our citizens that they are safe, and when they have an issue they are going to get a quick response and they are going to be taken care of,” she said.

According to Mitchell, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards would require six additional firefighters/EMTs, so hiring four additional is staying on the conservative side.

“We have five ambulances right now. Only three of them are going to be in service for primary runs, so those fourth and fifth calls that come in will be outsourced to another department in the county [Wicomico County] and they are going to get the revenue from that … those calls are what helps fund the ambulances we have instead of sitting in a bay at the fire department because we don’t have staff to run them,” she said.

Mitchell furthered the SAFER grant allowed for the city to save $300,000 in SFD overtime costs.

“Just over half of that is going back into this budget amendment to help fill that gap for the remainder of this fiscal year. At some point, I hope FEMA reopens the grant so we can reapply and be successful. If not, we need to have that conversation at budget time …,” she said.

Councilman Tim Spies recognized the county owes the city about $2.2 million in service fees for servicing calls out side of municipality lines, but it is not probable the city will see those funds.

“I would like the city to say, ‘we are never going to get this money’, and say, ‘where are we going to come up with the money’ because this is a pie in the sky … we need to restructure in what we do in providing services to the county, if that is what we want to do,” he said.

Good working relationships are how a compromise will eventually be found, Council President Jake Day said of the emergency services agreement.

“I look forward to sustaining that good working relationship,” he said. “There is only one service provided by a municipal corporation in this county to citizens who are not inside that municipal corporation. All of us paying county taxes that are provided outside of the municipal boundaries are for fire service. It is something that we have to address but it is probably not going to involve the transfer of $2.2 million from the county to any municipality.”

Day added SFD returns about $250,000 a year in savings.

“I believe we are borrowing from future savings we will get from the fire department this year anyway,” he said. “I take the safety of our firefighters and the safety of our citizens seriously. As I understand it, from what we have learned over the past few weeks, having four firefighters on a truck is critical for their safety and to containing fires, which is also critical to the protection of life and property.”

The council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Shanie Shields absent, to approve the budget amendment.