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Votes

Potomac fire service cut

Potomac stands to lose critical fire and rescue resources, including a ladder truck needed to fight fires in large houses, an ambulance and more than 10 full-time firefighter positions as part of county budget cuts.

The cuts are scheduled to take effect in less than three weeks, at the end of this month, January 2003, said Gordon Aoyagi, county fire administrator. Aoyagi said he made the recommendation to County Executive Doug Duncan, and is only waiting for Duncan’s ok.

The aerial ladder truck has been used in recent years to fight high-profile and high-elevation fires at the Shriver residence and the Mike Tyson residence in Potomac, among hundreds of other calls.

“We hate to see a cut like this,” said Eugene Roesser, spokesperson for Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, which serves most of Potomac with Station 10 on River Road and Station 30 on Falls Road at Oaklyn Drive. “We have large homes, and some businesses. If one major home goes up, this could be a serious deal.”

THE PLAN would also move an ambulance from Station 33, run by the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, on Falls Road near Glen Road. This would put added strain on the ambulance at Station 30, the Falls Road station near Oaklyn Drive, said Roesser.

Roesser said the decision was made without consulting the volunteers. The fire chiefs are preparing a counter-proposal for cost reductions that don’t cut emergency services, said Steve Miller, deputy chief at Cabin John Volunteer Fire Department.

But Aoyagi said the departments knew in October that there were “concerns about tightening resources. Everyone was aware of the need for reductions.” He asked chiefs to assess possible reductions as well as needs, Aoyagi said.

Cabin John Chief Jim Seavey said he proposed $1.5 million in cuts that could be made before cutting service to Aoyagi in December, but that his proposals were ignored.

“This is either unintentional gross mismanagement of our protection of the Potomac area, or intentional hostility to the wealth in Potomac,” Seavey said.

“We can see that there is fat in [Aoyagi’s administrative] budget that doesn’t affect services to communities,” said Marcine Goodloe, president of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. The firefighters union, sometimes at odds with the volunteer organizations, also opposes any cuts to fire and rescue service, both Goodloe and Seavey said.

Montgomery County’s fire and rescue services are provided by an unusual mix of volunteer and career personnel. The county pays 980 career employees, and there are 1,200 to 1,500 volunteers, about 800 of whom go out on emergency calls. Volunteers own 33 of the county’s fire stations, and both the county and volunteer fire departments purchase and maintain pieces of equipment. Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, for example, owns Station 30 on Falls Road, along with a “heavy rescue” ambulance and most of the fire trucks it uses. Roesser said Cabin John Park volunteers have saved the county approximately $750,000 by purchasing its own equipment.

BUT THE COUNTY owns the aerial ladder truck in question.

“This truck is critical to opening up the roof to find the fire and to conduct search and rescue,” said Steve Miller, a Potomac resident and Deputy Chief at Cabin John Volunteer Fire Department. “The aerial is extremely important; in fact it’s made all the difference in several major fires that we’ve had."

“We don’t know why they are hitting so hard in the Potomac area,” he said.

Shifts in service will save about $1.4 million in anticipation of a $300 million predicted budget shortfall in the county for the next fiscal year, Aoyagi said.

CABIN JOHN'S LADDER truck will be put in “reserve,” Aoyagi said, with another ladder truck moving to Station 26 at Democracy Boulevard at I-270 to serve Potomac and other areas. Station 26 is approximately 4.5 miles away from the station on River Road and 6.5 miles away from the Falls Road station. "There's no question you're adding to the response time," said Roesser. He said the change, depending on traffic conditions, could cause an increase in response time up to seven minutes.

The county will staff 12, rather than 14, aerial ladder trucks, providing response times of about nine minutes or less to most parts of the county, Aoyagi said.

“Whenever there is a cut, you hate to see a loss of protection to the community,” said Roesser. “The whole thing is a chess game and — bottom line — how much are they saving? It just becomes an aggravating fight.”

Miller and Roesser also said the loss of the positions would be a major problem for continuing river rescues. Miller heads the county specialty team on river rescues, and relies on the staff for the ladder truck at times for emergencies.

“The cut in manpower is going to drastically reduce our ability to run river rescues. We rely on the extra manpower for river-qualified personnel, Miller said. “Our specialty team makes more saves than all the other specialty teams combined — more than they’ve done in five years.

OTHER QUESTIONS include why, when making a $1.5 million cut in a department with $108 million budget, the first cuts must be in direct emergency service to the public. The reduction in staffing will save $1.4 million.

“As an expert, why are we starting with the emergency services we provide the public?” Miller said. “Why are we cutting the heart out initially?”