OCEAN CITY — After Ocean City’s firefighter paramedic union president made an impassioned plea for help from the town’s elected officials on Monday, Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore fired back with a detailed explanation why an ambulance crew is no longer being sent to every automatic fire alarm.
On Monday, Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or Local IAFF 4269, President Ryan Whittington told the Mayor and Council a new schedule change that resulted in the traditional three 24-hour shifts followed by 72 hours off rotation had already caused a reduction in service. Whittington explained the response to an automatic fire alarm at a high-rise building of over seven stories in recent years has included a fire engine and an ambulance crew.
However, Whittington said a recent memo from the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) leadership had eliminated the inclusion of an ambulance crew on every level 2, or high-rise, automatic fire alarm. The union chief said the elimination of the ambulance crew on a high-rise automatic fire alarm was a direct result of the elimination of the old 24-72 rotation.
Larmore quickly disputed the notion the removal of an ambulance crew on automatic fire alarms had anything to do with the schedule change implemented last October. In a memo to City Manager Doug Miller on Tuesday, the very next day after Whittington’s impassioned plea to the Mayor and Council, Larmore said the ambulance to automatic fire alarms issue had more to do with the reallocation of resources than any perceived difficulties with the new schedule change.
“These are not reductions in service,” the memo reads. “In fact, they are reallocations to provide a better service and ensure availability to those calls with a higher priority. It has always been, and will continue to be, our core mission to provide the best service in the most efficient means.”
Larmore’s memo to Miller suggests a high percentage of automatic fire alarms at buildings of seven stories or higher turn out to be unfounded, reducing the need for a full response with a fire engine and an ambulance until the severity of the incident is determined.
“Automatic fire alarms are a notification by an alarm system, typically to the Communications Center,” the memo reads. “These types of calls have a very high rate, well into the upper 90th percentile, of not being a life or property hazard. They also compile a similar percentile of our overall fire responses.”
Larmore’s memo to Miller explained the reasoning why an ambulance crew was added to automatic fire alarms at high rises a few years back.
“The equipment due on this type of alarm has generally always been a single engine response,” the memo reads. “Several years ago, following a couple of calls in larger level 2 buildings for people requesting medical evaluation due to minor injuries while evacuating, an ambulance was added to level 2 responses.”
The memo explains the OCFD leadership carefully reviewed its deployment policies this winter after a spike in “out of service” occasions, particularly during the offseason when the volume of visitors to the resort area remains high but the department’s staffing is not raised in-kind.
“A department-wide response evaluation was performed in January 2018,” the memo reads. “This was due to an abnormal amount of ‘out of crew’ occurrences in 2017. The term ‘out of crew’ does not mean a call for service is not immediately answered. It means the scheduled personnel are depleted and the next available unit must be staffed by calling on personnel, reassigning existing personnel or the supervisor may handle the call.”
Larmore’s memo essentially says sending an ambulance crew on every single automatic fire alarm before the severity of the incident is determined is unwarranted.
“Simply put, the goal was to decrease the number of calls or the resources committed to calls if they were not utilized and to increase the number of remaining available resources,” the memo reads. “The modification of the automatic fire alarm policy is part of these initiatives. After review, we believe the infrequency of the need for an ambulance does not justify the response. Every response of a piece of equipment represents a cost, liability and may place a staffed unit where it cannot provide a more needed service.”
Larmore’s memo points out the issue only rates to automatic fire alarms, or silent alarms, and the response is immediately ramped up if and when an actual emergency is determined.
“It is noted this is only for an automatic fire alarm,” the memo reads. “If any resident, visitor, witness, surveillance system, police officer etc. sees or smells any evidence of a fire or emergency, it immediately becomes a full response with the two closest career engines, an ambulance, all available volunteers, an additional two engines and a truck, two mutual aid companies, a supervisor and several chief officers.”