Anne Arundel County has a new $2 million fleet of fire engines - eight trucks that each can pump 1,250 gallons of water per minute and, for the first time, also transport advanced life-support equipment and two paramedics.
But the medics' seats are empty.
There aren't enough paramedics in the county to staff the 13 paramedic trucks the county already has.
"We're in a situation right now where we have to cancel people's leave and hold them over from their shifts," said Fire Battalion Chief John M. Scholz.
While the department tries to fill 30 immediate paramedic vacancies, the department's goal is to add an additional 67 paramedic positions in the next five to seven years, Scholz said.
Because the new engines are expected to last 15 years, he said it made sense to buy them with the paramedic units now, rather than try to retrofit them later, which would be costly or impossible.
The county now has 110 paramedics, and has hired 21 more who will finish at the fire academy by the end of the year. Another class of recruits is scheduled to begin training in January.
Still, it remains unclear how the department will handle the peak vacation season, which is in the fall and around the holidays, said Keith W. Wright, the new union president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters Association.
"Already, overtime is almost mandatory," Wright said.
If county officials approve paramedic staff increases in the next few years, paramedics will be aboard when a new fire engine responds to an emergency, making it possible to start intravenous lines and advanced life support right away, Scholz said.
Now, firefighters - who all trained as emergency medical technicians - begin basic life support until paramedic units arrive, usually within minutes.
Having paramedics on board also will enable more aggressive firefighting. Taking along two paramedics, who are also trained firefighters, will mean a total of six firefighters will respond on one truck.
This will allow the crew to enter a burning structure without waiting for backup. Firefighters must wait until five firefighters are on the scene before they can go inside, because two firefighters must be outside to rescue the two firefighters inside if trouble arises, and the fifth pumps the water, Scholz said.
"This will really enhance our response," Scholz said.
The Fire Department, which responds to 3,000 medical emergencies a year, often sends fire trucks when the county's 16 ambulances and 13 paramedic trucks are on other calls, he said. "If the fire engine is closest, we send it," Scholz said.
The new fire engines are already being used to fight fires and respond with basic medical care, though it will likely take several years before their paramedic units are fully staffed.
The new fleet replaces 15-year-old trucks that are no longer as safe or as economical to operate, Scholz said.
Four of the new fire engines have been stationed at the Marley, Jones, Harwood and Arnold stations. The other four will be put in service within the next month, Scholz said.
The new vehicles have hydraulic lifts to lower 100-pound ladders from the side of the truck. Firefighters are often injured lifting the ladders, he said.
The engines can carry 750 gallons of water and have an automatic foam pump used to extinguish chemical fires.
A climate-controlled storage unit is in the back of the engine trucks next to the seats for the paramedics and firefighters.
Medicine can be stored inside, along with equipment that needs to be charged, such as heart monitors.
Another storage area on the side of the truck contains a first-aid trauma bag and room for other equipment.
The equipment and supplies won't be stored there, Scholz said, until there are paramedics who can use them.