OCEAN CITY — With 44 occasions in the offseason last year when the Ocean City Fire Department did not have ambulance crews available to respond to calls, resort officials this week approved funding to add a two-person paramedic crew this year.
During Tuesday’s work session, Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers and his staff came before the Mayor and Council requesting approval to fund another two-person ambulance crew from October through April. The request came after a recent review revealed there were numerous times during the offseason last year when the department had two or fewer ambulance crews available to respond to calls including 44 times when no crews were available.
The proposal on the table was to add a two-person ambulance crew to be staffed from Sunday to Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Beginning Thursday and through the weekends when call volume is highest, the unit would be staffed 24 hours a day.
The cost of the proposal is just under $160,000, but a creative funding mechanism has been identified. Ocean City received a $60,000 grant from Worcester County for the Safe Station program at fire headquarters, along with another $125,000 increase in the grant from the county for EMS response. Bowers told the Mayor and Council the issue was critical heading into the offseason, which is why he was making the request at this time.
“Increasing call volume and a reduction in staffing during the offseason has increased the frequency in which the department is either out of crews or staffing is reduced to two or fewer crews,” he said. “These occurrences leave the town without adequate fire and EMS protection.”
Bowers said the issue was identified during his systemic review of the department following his appointment last spring.
“As your fire chief, I looked at the data and looked at safety and a single unit provider does not help the situation at all,” he said. “We made a data-driven decision. Another two-person unit should be staffed from October to April.”
Bowers said there has been a 21% increase in overall call volume during the shoulder seasons over the last five years. The increase is largely due to the growth in special events in the offseason, which is achieving the desired goal of increasing business in the resort, but does not come without a cost and a strain on emergency services. In addition, residential and commercial growth in West Ocean City, which the town’s fire and EMS divisions serve, has contributed to the strain during the offseason. Bowers said the calls for service in West Ocean City increased 13% during the offseason last year.
As a result, there were numerous occasions during the most recent offseason when the increase in calls for service coupled with the unavailability of staff resulted in no crews being available, according to Bowers.
“During the offseason, we have significantly fewer crews available,” he said. “There were 44 occasions last year when we were out of crews. That reduces the ability to provide an adequate level of protection and decreases the department’s ability to handle increases in call volume.”
Bowers said on those occasions when no crews were available, or two or fewer crews were available, response times increased. He said the response times during those occasions sometimes ranged from five minutes to as long as 38 minutes. It’s important to note those response times are for EMS crews able to transport patients if necessary.
There are no times when a call goes unanswered. If a call came in and a crew wasn’t immediately available, supervisors and crew chiefs can respond initially. In addition, the Ocean City Police Department is trained in EMS and can provide immediate assistance until the fire department’s EMS crews arrive. Nonetheless, Bowers said increased response times are never acceptable for his department.
“Whether it’s 30 seconds, three minutes, 13 minutes or 38 minutes, response times for a 911 call is critical,” he said.
Councilman John Gehrig asked what has changed suddenly in terms of increased calls for service and the need for another two-person EMS crew in the offseason. He pointed out the number of special events in the offseason has increased dramatically. City Manager Doug Miller said the formula for the number of allowable hours for part-time EMTs creates staffing challenges. Assistant Fire Chief Eric Peterson also said it isn’t an entirely new problem, pointing out the increased strain of calls in West Ocean City has been a contributor.
“We’ve had a significant problem for a number of years,” he said. “We just haven’t had a failure yet.”
Gehrig questioned why the problem wasn’t addressed during budget deliberations last spring. To be fair, Bowers came on after the budget was struck and he and his staff have spent the summer reviewing operations and working of solutions for shortcomings. Nonetheless, Gehrig questioned if the funding needed for another offseason EMT crew could be worked out within the constraints of the department’s budget.
“Here’s how I see this,” he said. “I look at this like a salary cap. Here’s how much money you have and it’s up to you on how best to spend your allocation.”
Gehrig pointed out the fire department just came to the Mayor and Council three weeks ago seeking $300,000 for new motors on aging fire engines, a request that was approved. Now, with the request for more funding for the extra offseason EMT crews, he questioned what other requests might be forthcoming.
“I’d like to look at this in totality,” he said. “Instead of you coming back to us every other meeting, I want to hear all of your needs. I’d be in favor of having a mini-budget meeting with your department.”
Bowers said the department does have other needs and that his systemic review has resulted in a priority list. Clearly, with the number of occasions with no crews available, adding an offseason two-person EMT crew appears to be at the top of that list.
“We’re coming to you with a problem, but we’re also coming with a solution,” he said. “We have a priority list and a strategic plan and I can lay it all out for you right now.”
Gehrig said his questions are an attempt to find out what other unknowns might be out there.
“Look, I’m 100% behind you,” he said. “We want to give you everything you need to do the job and keep everybody protected. I just want to know if more is coming.”
In term of the increased number of calls for service in West Ocean City, Councilman Mark Paddack questioned if those calls were cost-neutral. Budget Manager Jennie Knapp said the county provides Ocean City with $750 per ambulance run in West Ocean City, but that does not cover the city’s cost. The patients transported to the hospital are also billed through their insurance, but the town isn’t always reimbursed 100%.
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed the fire department’s recent requests for more funding should be reviewed in the broader sense, but said the alarming number of calls without crews available made this particular request urgent.
“You have prioritized your requests and the fact that you’re here today makes me believe this is your number one,” he told Bowers and his staff. “I think this is a reasonable request, especially with the grant funding we have to cover it.”
Councilman Matt James agreed with the urgency of funding the department’s request for an additional offseason EMT crew.
“Since we ran out of crews 44 times in the offseason in 2018, I think this is a top priority,” he said.
When asked if the request on Tuesday could be part of a larger review of the department’s needs, Bowers said he was open to that, but with the arrival of the offseason, adding the extra EMT crew was a pressing issue.
“When I look at my priority list, I’m not comfortable with waiting on all of these things until the next budget session,” he said.
After considerable debate, the council unanimously approved the shifting of grant funding to cover the expense of adding an additional two-person EMT crew during the offseason.
“I’m going to support this $185,000 in unbudgeted revenue,” said Gehrig. “I’m prepared to allocate to you the $185,000 to use any way you want.”