OCEAN CITY — Ocean City Fire Department officials presented a comprehensive five-year strategic plan this week aimed at continuing to provide timely and efficient service to the community, but the biggest takeaway was staffing and funding challenges remain.
Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers presented the department’s strategic plan to the Mayor and Council on Tuesday. The comprehensive planning document outlines the department’s key objectives in several areas over the next five years and includes several goals for how to achieve those objectives.
“This is the plan going forward, barring any disaster or emergency,” he said. “It’s a road map for future success. This strategic plan will serve as a living document and a work in progress, subject to change under evolving circumstances. This strategic plan has created a framework that will guide the OCFD’s policies, budget and operations for the next five years and help ensure that the OCFD continues to provide high-quality and reliable service to the community while at the same time ensuring the effective use of city resources and funds.”
While the weighty strategic plan outlines many of the department’s successes, it also points to some of the challenges that remain. Bowers pointed to the Oct. 20 fire at the Seaway condominium building as an example of some of the challenges the department faces.
“There was an incident that happened recently on which we really focused some of our efforts with this strategic plan,” he said. “Some of the challenges we face include an increased year-round population, increased incident responses and continued out-of-crew status challenges.”
The fire broke out in a condo on a rainy, windy Sunday afternoon. The OCFD responded with what resources it immediately had available with just seven crewmembers on the scene within minutes of the call.
Bowers said with a fire of that magnitude, the department has to complete 22 critical steps to begin battling a blaze and getting water on the fire. He said those seven initial first-responders set about completing those critical steps and began fighting the fire until additional crews arrived.
“We need to operate with efficiency to maintain that four-minute response time and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “What has changed are some of the challenges we face. There are 22 critical steps to complete to begin starting to fight a fire and we do have resource challenges sometimes. It has created some gaps in our level of service sometimes.”
Bowers said those first seven crewmembers on the scene at the Seaway fire did a remarkable job until more people arrived, but it created challenges.
“We have seven on the scene within minutes, but two of those crewmembers had to operate the pump,” he said. “That left us with only five people to complete those 22 critical on-ground steps. We got water on the fire after the flashover and they did one heck of a job, but it was a dangerous situation.”
A similar situation has been occurring with the department’s firefighter-paramedic crews. In October, Bowers requested from the Mayor and Council funding for an additional three-member ambulance crew for the offseason, known as Paramedic 7. 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 Mayor and Council approved the request at a cost of around $160,000 and the new ambulance crew became available in October. Bowers said on Tuesday the additional crew was already achieving the desired result although challenges remain and there are still occasions when ambulance crews are stretched to the limit.
“Paramedic 7 has made a great impact, but it still hasn’t entirely fixed the problem,” he said. “We do have some gaps in town on occasion and we often have serious gaps in West Ocean City.”
Bowers said the ambulance crew response issues were largely related to the increase in the number of people in the resort area during the offseason. He also attributed the increase in number of calls to the unincorporated West Ocean City area. There has been a 21% increase in the number calls for service in the offseason including a 13% increase in the West Ocean City area alone in the last year.
To that end, Mayor Rick Meehan last month fired off a letter to Worcester County requesting some financial assistance to serve West Ocean City or a reconfiguration of the first-due response areas in the county of a combination of both. Meehan said he has not yet had a response from the county.
“We do face funding and personnel challenges,” he said. “This is a critical department and we need to supply you with the resources you need. When we first served the West Ocean City area, it was done by volunteers, but that’s no longer possible because of the tremendous growth out there. We need to work together and follow up with that letter and see if we can make some progress. We can’t be in a position where we don’t have crews available. That’s the bottom line.”