OCFD Highlights Need For Full-Time Firefighters, Paramedics

OCFD Highlights Need For Full-Time Firefighters, Paramedics
Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – A critical need for more full-time firefighters and paramedics in the resort became evident this week during a budget presentation by the fire department.

On Monday, the Ocean City Fire Department presented its proposed fiscal year 2023 budget, revealing a critical need for more full-time personnel. Last year, there was a 12% increase in EMS calls in the department’s service area. However, the department was out of crews on 52 occasions, representing a 28% increase.

Emergency response crews had reduced staffing and were placed out of service on 70 occasions in 2021. There were 220 times during last year when the department was down to only one unit responding to emergency calls. The department was often unable to comply with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards and was unable to consistently meet federal safety mandates.

Part of the problem is filling the ranks with part-time personnel. Many of the part-time personnel have full-time jobs with other departments in the area and it’s often difficult to have them show up consistently to fill shifts. As a result, the full-time personnel often must work overtime and extended shifts.

There could be relief on the way, however. The department has applied for 18 positions through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant program, although realistically it appears that final number might be closer to 12. Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) Assistant Chief Eric Peterson explained some of the challenges during Monday’s budget presentation.

“It doesn’t give us the ability to comply with NFPA standards, which are the response time guidelines for volunteer combination fire departments,” he said. “The standards for an urban environment is 15 people on a call within nine minutes 90% of the time. For a suburban environment like West Ocean City, the standard is 10 people on a call within 10 minutes.”

Peterson explained the department’s ability to consistently meet response times had declined in recent years.

“In 2018, 2019 and 2020, we were right around 55%,” he said. “The other mandate we can’t consistently comply with is two people inside and two people outside ready to go in.”

Peterson said the response time challenges were related to the decline in the number of part-time personnel.

“Two years ago, we had 84 part-time members on the rolls,” he said. “Going into this summer, we have 53 on the rolls. They’re pretty much guaranteed 36-hour shifts every time they go to work.”

OCFD Chief Richie Bowers said the result is often long shifts for the full-time personnel.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of forced overtime,” he said. “We have to force them from going home, or we have to bring them back.”

Bowers said the possible remedy is getting more full-time personnel through the SAFER grant program.

“We had a work session a couple of months ago and I highlighted some of the challenges we had with part-timer personnel not showing up,” he said. “The mayor asked if we need more full-time personnel and the answer is yes. It’s just like the other departments.”

Even if the SAFER program provides funding for 12 new full-time personnel, there is a long-term cost associated with the additions, City Manager Terry McGean pointed out. When the grant funding runs out, the city would be on the hook to pay salaries and benefits.

“It’s important to remember the grant program does not go on forever,” he said. “After three years, we have to pay 100%. When we talked about this, it was a combination of 12 operational personnel and six more at a higher level. My feeling was we get the 12 and can promote from within. They can do whatever they want with the 12.”

Councilman Mark Paddack pointed out the council in recent years approved the addition of 10 new full-time police department officers, and that is coming to fruition.

“It was very positive when we heard from the police chief about the 10 full-time officers this council approved,” he said. “The full-time employees are worth every dime they get paid. When I hear Fire Chief Peterson talk about the response guidelines and we’re only making 55% compliance, that’s a little alarming. We should be in a higher realm than that.”

Paddack said the OCFD has to keep trying to fill its ranks with more full-time personnel.

“We should never drop the ball,” he said. “Keep trying to get them. The presentation clearly identifies we need more. There is a liability concern for our employees and our citizens if we are not keeping up with the recognized standards for response times. We’re clearly falling short.”

Mayor Rick Meehan agreed.

“I think we need to maximize the number of people we can hire under the SAFER grant,” he said. “We need to continue to expand our full-time personnel numbers because it’s evident we need to move in that direction.”

Peterson said there is potential to eventually fill out the full-time personnel rolls from within.

“I’m teaching a firefighter course right now,” he said. “I’m encouraging these kids, and they are 16- to 18-year-old kids, to take the EMT training because that’s what we’re going to have to do,” he said. “We’re encouraging the kids coming up in the volunteer status to do that also. We can look at our cadets and start molding them for the future.”

Peterson said filling out the ranks with part-time personnel is increasingly challenging.

“We’re in so much competition with everyone else now,” he said. “When I started, we used to have 100 applicants and test 60 to 70. Now, we have 18 to 20.”

He said potential part-timers are going where they earn the most money and respond to the fewest number of calls.

“You can go to Somerset County and make $25 an hour and maybe you don’t get a call,” he said. “You can go to Westside and make $20 an hour and you probably won’t get a call on a shift. Every department around here hires part-time personnel. They have the pick of where they want to go. Most people are going to go where they make a little more money, or the same amount of money and don’t necessarily have to do the same amount of work.”

Councilman John Gehrig said with the growth in the town and the associated increase in calls for service, going with a more full-time fire department appears to be the direction in which the town is headed.

“This is what we call growing pains,” he said. “We need to make a decision and be committed to it. We’re going to be in the millions of dollars with this and we need to figure out how we’re going to pay for it.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.