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Firefighters delay vote on dividing EMS funds

Carroll County's volunteer firefighters have delayed a vote on a revamped proposal for distributing $1.9 million in emergency medical services, choosing instead to ask the county commissioners for more guidance on how to spend the money.

The decision to ask the commissioners to specify how the money should be allocated came after firefighters spent nearly two hours Monday night debating - angrily at times - the merits of the latest proposed distribution. That proposal never made it to a vote.

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"We are sitting here at a crossroads. We have to stop the nitpicking. We are at a stalemate," E. Richard Baker, second vice president of the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association, said at the meeting. "We need to go to the county and ask for direction."

County Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr., who was a volunteer firefighter in Union Bridge for more than a decade, said that the commissioners wanted firefighters to come up with a plan that would make the most out of an additional $775,000 that the county gave them this year for emergency medical services.

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"We felt there had to be a way if everyone sat at the table," Jones said. "We gave them the ball and apparently they're at mid-court and not going anywhere. We'll have to sit at the table and try to come up with alternatives. We'd like to work this out with the firefighters."

No date has been set for a meeting, Jones said.

Efforts to boost 24-hour emergency medical coverage were launched about five years ago, when the county commissioners agreed to give an additional $516,000 to split evenly among companies in Westminster, Taneytown, Sykesville and Manchester. Although all county firefighters are volunteers, some drivers and paramedics are paid. Each fire station except the smallest, Harney, receives $50,000 annually from the county to provide emergency medical services.

This year, firefighters appealed to the county for more money to add ambulance personnel. The firefighters expressed concern that the county's population - including the elderly - is growing beyond the capacity of the four stations to handle overnight calls.

"We're in a crisis situation where money is needed now to handle the overwhelming number of calls we respond to," said Kevin Utz, chief of Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Company No. 1, the county's busiest and biggest station. He said yesterday that the station responds to about 300 emergency medical calls and more than 100 fire calls a month.

About 400 emergency medical technicians and 150 paramedics are in the county, said Elizabeth Luebberman, a paramedic who is president of the Carroll County Volunteer Ambulance Association.

The commissioners included in this year's $6.5 million fire and ambulance budget an additional $775,000 for emergency services, increasing that portion of the budget to $1.9 million. For months, the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association has been working on proposals to expand round-the-clock emergency medical service.

A committee designed to come up with a plan presented one in early July, only to have the membership reject it. The association then held a meeting at the end of July to hear alternative proposals and take a vote. Firefighters voted on a plan that gave Westminster and Sykesville departments more than half of the extra money.

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Commissioners rejected that plan last month. They were concerned that stations such as Union Bridge would have to shut down their overnight ambulance service because they weren't going to get enough additional money, Jones said.

Some volunteer firefighters have reacted angrily to the commissioner's decision.

"I think the commissioners are not allowing the firemen's association to disperse the money that they have thrown out in the pond for us to use," Utz said yesterday. "I don't think they trust our judgment as to where the money should go."

The latest plan was debated Monday night by about 40 representatives from the county's 14 fire companies. Thomas J. Van de Bussche, president of the firemen's association, pleaded with members to settle the issue once and for all.

"We've got to start looking at this as a county, instead of as wild dogs after a piece of meat," Van de Bussche said. "If we don't get it together, the county is going to take over," he said.

Under the revamped plan, the Westminster department's share would be reduced to $202,000 and the Sykesville company's would be reduced to $195,000. Departments in Mount Airy, Hampstead, Manchester, Taneytown, Reese and Winfield would each receive $195,000 - the cost of employing one paramedic and one driver round-the-clock for a year.

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Union Bridge and New Windsor would be given $195,000 to split. Gamber, Lineboro and Pleasant Valley would each receive $60,000.

The revised plan includes 3 percent annual increases in the amounts for each department and calls for extra medic units and administrative staff to be hired.


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