xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

How many incidents do fire companies respond to? Carroll County data doesn’t add up, commissioner says.

Carroll County relies on volunteers to respond to fires and other emergencies, and the speed they respond can influence residential development. New 911 statistics shed light on local fire companies’ response times — and discrepancies in how the data is recorded.

Scott Campbell, the county’s director of public safety, presented the average response times for Carroll County’s 14 volunteer fire companies between Dec. 1, 2017, and Nov. 30, 2019, at the Board of Commissioners meeting Jan. 2.

Advertisement

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, who has been in the fire service for many years, found fault with the way the statistics were presented.

He said the number of calls a fire company responds to is much higher than the statistics suggest. In the chart, the number of fire incidents over a two-year period ranges from 896 in one company to five in another, according to the average response time chart. Response times range from under seven minutes to just over 10 minutes.

Advertisement

“Those numbers can’t be right,” Wantz said to Campbell. “This is very misleading. To the layman it looks like in a two-year time period Mount Airy’s only had 255 fire incidents. You know that’s not true.”

Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company responded to 824 fire-related calls and 1,774 EMS calls in 2019 alone, according to its website.

Campbell said the numbers represent the fire and emergency medical services, or EMS, incidents a department responds to in its first due territory. The first due territory refers to the geographic area in which a certain company is scheduled to be the first to respond.

Carroll County’s expected transition to a combination paid and volunteer fire service weighed on Wantz’s mind. The county is currently searching for its first fire and EMS director.

Wantz told Campbell he believes the ordinance should be changed so the fire response statistics really show how busy departments are. When a new director starts, they will need to know which stations are shorthanded and where to send additional firefighters, Wantz said.

“These numbers by themselves do not tell the story,” added Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5.

The county has received 36 applications for the fire and EMS director, Kim Frock, director of human resources, wrote in an email Friday. She said applications are being reviewed.

Numbers paint broad picture

How a fire company defines a fire incident differs from the county’s definition.

The county’s average response time chart shows the Westminster fire company responded to 896 “fire incidents” in two years. In contrast, department spokesperson Kevin Dayhoff said their records show Westminster responded to 6,306 calls in 2019 alone, 950 of which were fire related.

Don Fair, president of Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association, or CCVESA, said in an interview the response times presented by the county are not inaccurate, but they don’t paint a very detailed picture.

“It’s data, but you have to use the data with the understanding that it’s a wide-based assessment because it’s done on a volunteer not career-based system," Fair said.

Campbell said in an interview the statistics he presented were “never intended” to represent the total amount of calls for fire companies. The numbers are actually recorded this way for residential development purposes.

Advertisement

The Adequate Public Facilities and Concurrency Management Ordinance, established in 1998 but amended several times since, exists to ensure that residential growth occurs at a rate that does not “unduly strain” public facilities, according to county code. This includes facilities such as schools, roads, police, fire and EMS. The full ordinance can be read in Chapter 156 of the county Code of Ordinances.

According to the ordinance, EMS and fire services are considered adequate if a company’s response time is eight minutes or less from time of dispatch to the time the first piece of appropriate equipment, such as a fire engine or ladder truck, arrives on scene. As a qualifying factor, services provided under eight minutes are only considered adequate if the number of late responses and failed responses combined is under 15% of the total incidents and the number of failed responses is under 4%, the ordinance reads. A response is considered failed if a company is dispatched but never responds, which could be due to a lack of volunteers.

Additionally, these standards only apply if bridges and roads are adequate for fire and EMS equipment to travel across them.

By the ordinance’s standards, six out of 14 fire companies in Carroll County are considered to have “adequate” response times: Mount Airy, Westminster, Manchester, New Windsor, Sykesville and Winfield.

Response time between eight and 10 minutes is considered approaching inadequacy, and a response time over 10 minutes is considered inadequate, according to the ordinance. The companies approaching inadequacy are: Hampstead, Taneytown, Pleasant Valley, Lineboro, Union Bridge, Reese and Gamber. Harney’s response time of 10 minutes and 13 seconds puts it in the category of inadequate, according to the ordinance.

The response time average for each company is updated monthly as new data is collected, so a department’s adequacy status can change, according to Campbell. The average is calculated based on two years’ worth of data, so the oldest month’s data is deleted as the calendar shifts forward.

Response times can affect development

If a plan for a residential development or a major residential subdivision comes to the county for approval, the Bureau of Development Review checks the standards in the concurrency management ordinance to determine whether there are sufficient facilities and services in place to support the increased population and homes, according to Bureau Chief Clay Black.

If any service, including fire and EMS, is not sufficient to support a new development — meaning it falls into the inadequate category — then the planning commission would not be able to approve the plan, Black said, speaking generally.

The most recent time a plan was denied due to inadequate fire services was about five years ago, Black recalled. There was a proposal for two residential developments in the Reese area.

Black noted there are ways — outlined in the ordinance — to obtain conditional approval even when there are inadequate services.

A push for paid firefighters

Campbell said the statistics are not meant to paint departments in a negative light or make residents fear for lack of service. If anything, he said, these numbers help justify the county’s decision to pursue a combination paid and volunteer fire service.

“Carroll County fire departments do an amazing job," Campbell said.

Advertisement

But there’s one factor beyond their control, he said.

“They’re hurting for people to answer the call," Campbell said.

When someone calls 911, a dispatcher typically notifies multiple fire companies at once in order to have enough volunteers to tackle the emergency, according to Campbell. If one company isn’t able to respond, the dispatcher calls another.

In recent years, more companies have been needed to respond to a call because there aren’t as many volunteers, according to Fair, the CCVESA president. He said in an interview that CCVESA partnered with the county to pursue a combination paid and volunteer fire service because volunteers have been declining for years now — and not just in Carroll.

“We are experiencing a slow decline of our responders in the volunteer service, and that’s why we’re anxiously pushing the county to start this combination department," he said.

Fair said action is being taken before the fire service declines to the point that it affects residents.

“The big thing in this process is not to alarm people before a critical issue is developed," Fair said. “It may take more than one vehicle, one company to manage the call, but we’re going to get it done.”

Campbell said that any residents who have concerns about fire services are welcome to contact him at scampbell@carrollcountymd.gov.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement