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Ladder Truck Not Gone Yet

Decision is now Duncan’s alone

When a neighbor’s house was on fire last March, Garden Way resident Neal Goldenberg had the opportunity to witness Cabin John’s ladder truck in action.

“It was right up there above the roof,” Goldenberg said.

He still remembers the impressive sight of the ladder looming over the house and enabling the firefighters to do their jobs.

“One guy was right up there. I don’t think he realized just how close he was to the flames. The guys on the ground started dousing him with water,” Goldenberg said.

Unfortunately for Potomac residents, the ladder truck will not operate from the Cabin John Volunteer Fire Department’s River Road station, if proposed cuts are approved. According to Gordon Aoyagi, County Fire Administrator, the truck will still be housed at the Cabin John station. However, there will no longer be county staff available to operate it.

The nearest ladder truck will then be at a station on Democracy Boulevard in Bethesda.

Aoyagi says the ladder truck will still be able to respond to calls from Potomac in a reasonable amount of time. According to guidelines prepared by the National Fire Protection Association, a ladder truck in an urban area should be able to respond within 6-8 minutes. According to Pete Piringer, spokesman for the County Fire and Rescue Department, Potomac will still be served in that amount of time. “For those who live near Democracy, they’ll see a decrease in response time,” Piringer said.

Residents closer to the Cabin John station, however, have some reservations.

“The talk is about two or three minutes’ difference — that’s a whale of a time when you’re talking about a fire,” said Goldenberg.

“I think we’re literally playing with fire here,” said Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1), Potomac’s representative on County Council

Ladder trucks are necessary in Potomac because of the size of the houses. While standard fire engines are equipped with ladders, they cannot always reach the roofs and upper floors of larger buildings. A ladder truck provides firefighters with access to these areas — of particular concern in a town with so many large houses.

“The expense of a fire truck must have been high initially, and, if anything, there’s more demand for it now,” said Robin Warsaw, general manager of the Avenel Community Association.

“Before they moved the ladder truck here, we really had some problems,” said Cabin John Deputy Chief Steve Miller.

According to Miller, the ladder truck has a variety of uses. “It’s vital for a process we call ‘opening up,’” said Miller. He said “Opening up” is when firefighters cut a hole, about the size of a sheet of plywood, in the roof of a structure to allow heat and dangerous gases to escape. It can also be used to help contain a blaze to one structure. “If it’s a major fire and it’s impinging on another structure, we can use it to put up a curtain of water,” Miller said. This can help stop fires from spreading from building to building.

Potomac residents are among many who have begun to speak out against the proposed cuts to the Fire and Rescue Department budget.

“It certainly impacts us negatively,” said Warsaw.

The cuts, slated to go into effect on Jan. 26, would cost Potomac the aerial ladder truck, the equivalent of 10 full-time positions that would affect river rescues, and an ambulance — and staffing for it — from Station 33 on Falls Road near River Road.

According to Donna Bigler, spokesperson for County Executive Douglas Duncan, Duncan has not yet made a decision about the plan, but will do so within the next two weeks.

The cuts were proposed in response to the county’s predicted budget deficit. While there is money to fund the department, and all other departments, through the end of the fiscal year in July, all departments were asked to cut money now. The plan is to lessen the cuts which will likely have to be made in the next budget cycle. Therefore, the County Executive asked all department heads, including Aoyagi as head of Fire and Rescue, to cut their budgets.

One wrinkle in this plan is the way the Fire and Rescue Department gets its funding. According to a memo recently sent to Duncan by Council members Marilyn Praisner (D-4), Tom Perez (D-5), Denis, and Phil Andrews (D-3), chair of the Public Safety Committee, the cuts won’t help the budget shortfall. According to the memo, the Fire and Rescue department is “funded by the fire tax and dedicated to fire and rescue use only. There is no deficit that would be corrected in the FY’03 budget.” The fire tax is a separate line item on County property tax bills. It has been suggested that the executive wishes to cut the fire and rescue tax and raise the general fund tax by a corresponding amount. This would leave the total tax bill unchanged. Duncan has proposed a 3-cent increase in the property tax rate to help pay for transportation initiatives.

Officials say cutting now will lessen the Fire and Rescue cuts that are forecast for next year.

“They could go ahead and spend all that money. That means the whole problem would be shifted to FY’04,” said Harold Adams, senior management budget analyst with the county’s Office of Management and Budget.

According to Bigler, some areas have to make fewer cuts. “They’ve been understanding with the public safety departments,” said Bigler.

According to Bigler, most departments were asked to cut 3 percent from their budgets, along with implementing a hiring freeze. Public safety departments — Fire and Rescue, and the Police Dept. — were exempted from the hiring freeze and only asked to cut 1.5 percent.

Ken Hartman, a spokesman for Denis, questions cutting anything at this time. “Why rush into these changes? Why not have the counsel hash them out so that alternatives can be weighed in a really public fashion?” Hartman said.

“There really isn’t time,” Bigler said. According to her the county will soon begin the budget process for next year. Therefore, they wouldn’t have the time to debate this year’s proposed cuts before next year’s budget process begins.

Hartman dismissed the lack of time assertion. “There’s always time for important issues like this,” Hartman said.

The Fire and Rescue Commission (see sidebar) is also opposed to the cuts. At their regular meeting on Jan. 9, the Commission passed a resolution proposing an alternative plan for making cuts. While Aoyagi’s cuts included de-staffing “ground-level” responders, The Commission’s resolution would freeze management-level positions.

“My cuts were directed to maintain core services,” Aoyagi said.

“There are alternative ways of identifying the savings. These are ways that don’t damage core service functions,” said Commissioner Fernando Bren, of Potomac, who proposed the commission’s resolution.

The resolution states that the “budget proposal was developed in a flawed process,” and “has the effect of undermining our community-based Local and Fire Rescue Departments.”

The issue of who’s right comes down to the question of who is more important to core functions. The commission says there needs to be more firefighters, EMTs and equipment responding to calls. Aoyagi says those responders need effective management to make sure services are being administered in the best possible manner.

The commission’s resolution was to be sent to the county executive and County Council, but as of The Almanac’s press deadline, neither had the opportunity to examine the proposal in detail. “It’s very positive to see that the commission has come up with alternatives. Now we’re just waiting to see what the executive does,” Hartman said.

“I’m sure [Duncan] will consider the alternatives,” Bigler said.

Bren described what he thinks will help in the future. “We should have a more collaborative process — that’s what’s lacking,” Bren said.

“This is the same process we’ve used for the last three years,” Aoyagi said. He added that he solicits advice from a wide array of individuals and departments.

The commission scheduled a special budget hearing to consider the proposed budget cuts for FY ‘04 (which begins in July) on Jan. 21.