SNOW HILL – County officials agreed this week to create a committee to tackle the issue of fire and EMS funding in Worcester County.
The Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to create a committee to review funding options for the county’s fire and EMS service. Fire companies throughout the county have been struggling in recent years to find the funds to cover the services they provide.
“We have to start somewhere,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said.
Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers approached the commissioners Tuesday on behalf of the county’s various fire companies to talk about what the organizations do and why they need more financial support. Bowers stressed that the companies were speaking as a unified group.
“I think it’s important for the county commissioners and (Chief Administrative Officer) Mr. Higgins to understand what is the lay of the land out there,” he said. “You have to understand what you’re making an investment in but you also have to understand what the demand is.”
Bowers said that though fire companies had provided service for years, they were now in a transition period as the demand for EMS increased and rapid community growth was underway. He talked about the need for a quick response to fires as the use of synthetic materials increased as well as the intense amount of training required so responders could help during special operations such as water rescues and hazardous material incidents.
He said the ongoing pandemic had highlighted how fragile the county’s EMS service was.
“The number of EMS incidents countywide has increased, the pandemic requires longer incident out of service time for units on an incident and the service lacks resiliency and capacity to respond to EMS calls,” he said. “The geography of the county and the location of the hospital emergency rooms can significantly and negatively impact response times to the first and second calls in areas. When multiple EMS incidents occur in the county simultaneously large gaps in coverage develop.”
Bowers said investments in both equipment and training for responders was critical. He urged the commissioners to form a workgroup to address funding for EMS services, funding for staffing, training, apparatus and facilities, and establish service wide response goals. He also suggested developing a strategic plan for fire and EMS services.
David Fitzgerald, president of the Berlin Fire Company, echoed Bowers’ desire to see county officials work with fire and EMS officials. He said the county had been gracious with its funding in years past and that was not being overlooked.
Fitzgerald said fire funding was adequate for now but EMS funding needed to be adjusted. He added that fire companies employed EMS personnel who were cross trained and able to serve as fire responders as well.
“That’s stretching that tax dollar,” he said.
Fitzgerald said that since the county’s fire and EMS funding formula was initially created in the 1970s, it had become a lot more complex and had now reached the point it needed to be reevaluated.
“It’s time to sit down and review the actual cost,” he said.
Mitrecic said he wanted to see a committee made up of three commissioners, six fire service representatives and two county staff members. He said the committee faced a difficult task.
“This is going to be tough because you’re going to have to find a way to fund this and there’s only one way,” he said. “We all know what that is. We’re going to have to convince the citizenry this is the right thing to do. So I would say that anybody that wants to serve on this committee better be ready for that. There is no other way. Property tax dollars only go so far.”
Though Commissioner Chip Bertino expressed concern about commissioners serving on the committee and being the ones who would ultimately have to judge a proposed funding plan, Mitrecic said they were the public’s representatives.
“I think a few of us should be on there representing the people,” he said.
Commissioner Diana Purnell suggested getting a third party, someone unconnected, involved. Mitrecic said that was why he’d suggested including two county employees on the committee.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said the committee as proposed could handle the funding issue and a consultant could perhaps be employed later to help with a strategic plan for fire and EMS.
The commissioners agreed to create the committee with Commissioner Josh Nordstrom representing the southern end of the county, Bunting representing the northern end and either Mitrecic or Commissioner Ted Elder rounding out the commissioner members.
Bowers praised the action.
“I believe that’s a great step forward,” he said.