OCEAN CITY — Stopping short of sounding an alarm, resort police and fire officials last week raised concerns about critical staffing issues and the ability to safely serve and protect the town.
During strategic planning sessions last week, resort officials reviewed a myriad of issues and projects large and small as it updated the town’s roadmap for the future. Inevitably, the discussion came around to public safety, one of the pillars of Ocean City’s plan for the future. While the police department is thriving and crime rates have steadily dropped, and the fire department and emergency services continue to provide a high level of service, some concerns were raised about staffing levels and increased funding in the future.
Funding was a catch word all week during the town’s marathon strategic planning sessions and the issue was no different for the various public safety departments. Councilman and former police officer Mark Paddack said he has heard from some of his constituents concerns about safety on the Boardwalk and in other areas of town.
“I know there is a perception at least from some local residents about the safety on the Boardwalk,” he said. “There are also concerns about safety in some of the neighborhoods when the snowbirds go south. That’s why we really need to emphasize the residential check program and the other programs we have.”
Ocean City Fire Department Chief Richie Bowers said he continues to review and overhaul his department’s staffing needs and other resources. Bowers cited a specific recent example when his staffing levels were briefly not up to the challenge.
“There was a fire two weeks ago uptown and for 13 minutes, we only had seven people there,” he said. “Now, those seven people did a tremendous job until reinforcements arrived, but we have to do more from a fire-rescue perspective. Fire protection in the north end is at risk right now.”
Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro said his department faces staffing challenges and continues to do more with less. He said he has kept his additional staffing requests to a minimum because of budget constraints, but there soon could be a tipping point.
“I’ve asked for one additional officer for the last several years,” he said. “We haven’t been able to go beyond that for the last 10 years. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep the same level of protection and service.”
Buzzuro said current staffing levels leave little room for rank-and-file office leave time. The expanded special events schedule in the shoulder seasons only contributes to the problem.
“This year, I asked for one additional officer,” he said. “That only allows for our other officers to get some leave. I’m not just talking about special events, I’m talking about fortifying us for the future.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said public safety was paramount and it was important to heed the requests from the town’s police and fire chiefs.
“We have to expect the unexpected and we have to plan for that,” he said. “Our intelligence should be able to determine when we’re at risk. When they tell us what they need, we have to listen. They have to have the capabilities to prepare for anything that comes up.”
Paddack pointed to changing dynamics in public safety. He alluded to the recently-completed Boardwalk access control project as an example.
“The world has changed,” he said. “We hardened the Boardwalk for a reason. We have to plan for everything because everything is possible. The police, fire and emergency services all need to coordinate so we’re all on the same page.”
Buzzuro said the situation was not dire, but said public safety and staffing and resources need to be closely monitored going forward.
“From a law enforcement perspective, we’re in a good place,” he said. “Crime rates continue to drop. We’re providing a high level of service and we’re doing it under budget. What’s down the road is a promising future, we just need to be sure we’re prepared for it.”
Bowers agreed emergency services staffing needs required close scrutiny.
“We continue to monitor trends and one trend is the number of calls for service continues to go up,” he said. “We need to continue to look at staffing changes and we need to continue to invest.”
One local law enforcement tool that is achieving success is the City Watch surveillance camera system. Paddack said the City Watch program provided extra eyes and ears for law enforcement and emergency services and it might be time to invest in it and expand it.
“I think we need to expand that,” he said. “We need better-quality cameras and more of them in more locations. Maybe we need cameras in the area from 33rd Street to 62nd Street because that’s an area where we see a lot of call volume.”
Buzzuro agreed City Watch could be one program on which to invest more.
“I agree wholeheartedly,” he said. “Five years ago, we developed the City Watch program and we’ve had a lot of success stories with it. We have good coverage on the Boardwalk, but I’d like to see it expanded to other hot spots. I know there is a cost associated with it, but it would be a tremendous investment for us.”