Talks Continue Over Funding Needs For County Fire Service; Officials Seek Clear Financials To Review

SNOW HILL – With smoke billowing over his stove as growing flames jumped out of a pot of cooking oil, Berlin resident Josh Davis got his family out of the house and called 911. Within minutes, responders from the Berlin Fire Company were on the scene and had the fire extinguished.

“All four of us were in shock, sitting outside and watching the fire take over our home of five years,” Davis said as he recalled the scary July evening. “The fire company response was instant, and they made sure we were safe, reassured us, brought us water and even shoes, and searched for our family pets who were trapped inside. They couldn’t have been more professional or handled it better, and my family is so grateful.”

What if the fire company’s response hadn’t been so quick? When people call 911, they expect help to arrive. The growing cost of providing that help, however, has some fire companies concerned abut their ability to respond to emergencies. Representatives from the county’s 10 fire companies banded together late last year to ask the Worcester County Commissioners for help.

And while short-term improvements have been made in the months since, a county-wide workgroup is still trying to identify a permanent funding solution for fire and emergency medical services. Nearly a year after creating the Worcester County Fire and EMS Strategic Planning Workgroup, county officials are still trying to get a grasp on the financial issues facing local fire companies. Officials say they have to understand companies’ needs before they can determine the best way to fund them.

“It’s been a learning process,” Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said. “I know we make progress every meeting.”

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In January, the Worcester County Commissioners agreed to form a workgroup to address fire and EMS funding. Members of the group included three commissioners — Nordstrom, Joe Mitrecic and Jim Bunting — as well as six fire company representatives and two county staff members.

“The primary purpose of the Worcester County Fire and EMS Strategic Planning Workgroup is to open a dialogue between policy makers and fire and EMS professionals to identify the challenges we’re facing,” said Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers.

According to Bowers, the county is experiencing an increase in emergency calls, a trend that will continue as long as growth continues. Fire and EMS is also going through a transitional stage, as companies are moving from volunteers to paid personnel who are cross trained in fire and EMS.

“You need funding to put career people on duty 24/7,” Bowers said.

To address the fact that not all of Worcester County’s fire companies were able to do that, one of the first moves the workgroup made was to recommend a funding increase to the Worcester County Commissioners. The commissioners added an additional $1.1 million to the annual EMS allocation for the current fiscal year.

“That placed units in service,” Bowers said.

Tim Jerscheid, assistant chief at Stockton Volunteer Fire Company, agreed. With the increase in funding, Stockton was able to expand its medic assist hours. There is now a responder in place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Previously, that shift ended at 3 p.m.

“Since we implemented the program in July, 62% of calls we have a daytime person on,” he said.

He added that the workgroup had helped ensure pay rates throughout the county weren’t so varied that some companies weren’t able to attract applicants for EMS positions.

“We wanted it so everybody was in the same ballpark,” he said.

Another workgroup recommendation related to per-run funding allocations. In the past, companies have received $1,000 per run when they respond to a call. Because they’re not paid unless they arrive at the scene, some companies opt not to turn back even if they’re called off. As a result, the workgroup recommended creating a $500 per run allocation for situations when companies leave the station but are called off on the way. The commissioners voted 5-2 not to approve the new allocation last month. At the time, Commissioner Chip Bertino expressed strong reservations about making a financial decision outside of the budget process. He stressed that the county was also still waiting on financial information requested from each fire company.

“At this point we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.

Worcester County typically spends $8.14 million a year supporting its 10 fire companies. While each company does submit financial information to the county each year, what has been required is not much—a one-page form listing revenues and expenses. Copies of the most recent records provided to the county obtained by The Dispatch include one- and two-page annual reports submitted by some companies as well as detailed audits provided by others. Along with the varying forms, companies don’t all operate under the same fiscal year. And while some share every detail of their financial situation, listing assets and including balance sheets, others provide the county with no more than a bare bones chart of revenues and expenses. The one-page report for Berlin EMS, for example, lists under “Revenue” the income associated with donations, EMS invoicing, the annual county grant, its annual town grant and banking interest. There’s no context to show how much is in the bank generating interest or how much EMS billed that went uncollected.

“I think it’s important as we move forward to have detailed financial information that reflects the operations for each of the fire companies so we can compare apples to apples and make a determination how to best move forward,” Bertino said.

Nordstrom said fire company representatives are working to provide supplemental information.

“The companies have been working hard to get us the information we need,” he said.

When the workgroup meets in January, members are expected to review fire company financials as well as the impact of the extra funding provided by the county.

“We’re heading in a great direction,” Jerscheid said.

Eventually, the group will determine how the fire and EMS service should be funded long-term. Bowers said that roughly 80% of calls were EMS calls and that EMS districts would be considered.

“Within those districts they’d figure out an assessment charge,” he said. “We need to talk about it.”

Whether that will happen before the coming year’s budget is passed isn’t clear.

“We’re working that way,” Mitrecic said. “We don’t have to pass the budget until June. We have time to work on it. The fire companies have a number in their head of what it costs to run each ambulance. We’re looking at the hard numbers to see if it’s more or less.”

Nordstrom also said he couldn’t speculate as to whether changes would be implemented during the next budget.

“We are preparing very well to have those discussions,” he said, adding that the commissioners were more educated now about what the fire companies’ needs were. “I think you’ll have commissioners, and administration, who have learned a lot more. We’re looking at all options. It’s been a learning process.”

He said that fact that the county had to provide extra funding to ensure adequate EMS coverage throughout the county illustrated the disparities among the various companies.

“It’s not just a one size fits all solution,” he said.

He stressed that the workgroup was committed to finding a solution.

“I’m proud to be a part of it,” he said.  “It’s been very educational for me. I’m hoping I can be part of the solution.”

Bowers too praised the group’s efforts.

“It’s been a great opportunity for us to examine what the problems are,” he said. “It’s one of the first times fire and EMS has spoken with one voice, to have a direct conversation with the decision makers.”

He said that while there was a ways to go progress had been made.

“It’s important for the public to know the fire and EMS system is stronger today than it was yesterday,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.