Cecil County Ambulances: County Asked to Takeover Some Services; Volunteer Fire Companies Object

January 31, 2012

Cecil County’s Emergency Services director asked the County Commissioners Tuesday to shift some basic ambulance services away from volunteer fire companies to county employees, at a gross cost of over $5 million over a four year period. But the volunteers say they can provide the same services at a much lower cost to taxpayers.

The proposal, which some volunteer fire/emergency companies say could spell a death knell for their community-based operations, comes during an election year. The county’s fire companies, and their members and supporters in local communities, represent a potent voting block.

Richard Brooks, the county’s director of Emergency Services, proposed the hiring of a staff of 28 county employees, stationed at three areas in the county, and county government purchase of three new “basic” ambulances to address problems with response times to calls for emergency medical services.

Brooks claimed that his agency could take over the services at no net increased cost to taxpayers because his department could begin, for the first time under state law, to collect fees from patients transported in existing county “advanced” paramedic ambulances, as well as in the new “basic” ambulances.

He presented a spreadsheet to commissioners that did not tally total costs and possible offsets and which required commissioners, the public and press to pull out their calculators to drill down into the costs over a four year period.

The presentation was also a bit disingenuous since it assumed that there would be no increased costs for benefits and no pay or cost-of –living increases for the next four years, when county employees have had no pay raises in the past four years. Eight years is a long time to assume there would be no increased personnel costs.

Brooks’ plan would require purchase of six basic ambulances at county expense, personnel costs, benefits, insurance, fuel and other costs, over a four year period, totaling $4.97 million in costs [plus $960,000 for the vehicles.] He said the initial purchase of three basic ambulances would have to be replaced in the fourth year due to wear and tear, resulting in the need for six vehicles during that period.

Monica Penhollow, President of the Cecil County Fireman’s Association, said the volunteer fire companies object to Brooks’ proposal and have drafted their own plan to address issues of staffing shortages and response time. Penhollow was in the audience at the County Commissioners’ Tuesday worksession but was not allowed to speak before the panel.

After the meeting, she said the fire companies’ would propose adding paid ambulance workers to the volunteer staffing at more volunteer fire companies, following the precedent already in place with paid ambulance responders at the Perryville, Singerly and North East fire companies.

“We’ve been here 100 years; we’re going to stay,” she said, adding that the volunteer companies could provide needed paid staffing to supplement the volunteers at a cheaper cost to the county than Brooks’ plan to make the new ambulance staffers county employees with full county benefits and salaries.

“I don’t want to see the county getting into the ambulance business,” she said.

The county government provides equipment and annual stipends to the volunteer fire companies, under state law requiring counties to provide adequate fire and emergency medical services. However, the volunteer companies supplement operating costs through their own fundraising activities as well as fees they are allowed to charge insurance companies for transport of insured patients to hospitals.

Brooks acknowledged he has his eye on those transport fees that his department could begin to collect under his plan. He presented a chart claiming that the costs of his plan could be offset by fees collected from patients, and/or their insurers.

Currently, the county cannot collect such transport fees because it does not directly employ “basic” ambulance services which are provided by the volunteer fire companies. The county provides “advanced life support” paramedic units operating out of three stations in the southern, central and western areas of the county, which are not now eligible for reimbursements.

But if the county government had its own “basic” ambulance service providers, the county could then start charging all patients fees, including those provided with “advanced life support” services, Brooks said. He offered a vague range of fees for patients, and/or their insurers, averaging $300, depending upon whether the county provided basic or advanced ambulance services.

Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) said that “the heart of the issue is does the county want to get into the ambulance business.” She said she wanted to hear in detail the concerns of the volunteer fire companies and requested a meeting of the commissioners with Brooks’ staff and the fire companies to review the issue.

Brooks was willing to participate in such a meeting, but said that he had notified the commissioners previously about concerns about current response times, “so you are not sitting on a boiling pot.”

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11 Responses to Cecil County Ambulances: County Asked to Takeover Some Services; Volunteer Fire Companies Object

  1. K.Wright on January 31, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    No way; leave it to the individual companies to address their own staffing issues! Three companies in the county have already done just that. If this gets passed it will hurt the community, and the volunteer system that helps them now! Let the volunteer companies choose to start collecting the reimbursement if they so choose to do so.

    Another thing that is going to happen if this gets passed is the county will be wanting to go to paid [stafff] with the fire and rescue services provided to county residents. This county has been volunteer [service] for a very very long time now. Whatever you do citizens and volunteers, do not let the county take that heritage from you; if its allowed, you will never get it back. Each company is able to figure out something for any issue they may have. Stay strong, my brothers and sisters, stay strong!

  2. Nicole on January 31, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Wow, that just looks like a slap in the face to the local volunteers who for years have devoted their time and families and lives to the companies they are part of. It seems to me it’s another way to take away from the strength of the community into the pockets of the politicians. These firehouses do a fine job; they are strong units and I’m sure there are several alternatives than to make it another county [agency.] Each town is different and should have some control of their individualities.

  3. robin on February 1, 2012 at 8:27 am

    Is Richard Brooks in an elected position? If so remember the name this fall.

  4. Wayne L. Tome, Sr. on February 1, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    The origin of this proposal was at the recommendation of the Cecil County EMS Advisory Board. This is a County Commissioner appointed Board consisting of a member from each of the 9 volunteer fire companies and 3 citizens at large. The issue at hand is the several hundred patients that have extended wait times for an ambulance when the home fire company “drops” / fails to respond to a call. Take the time to look at the issue. Let’s focus on patient care and transport in a timely fashion to the hospital.

  5. Jim Davidson on February 1, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    The responses are typical: why is the County offering a proposal? Because emergency responses are late and in some instances going to fourth and fifth [fire company] before an ambulance responds to an emergency. Would this be acceptable to your parents or loved ones while you sat by waiting? I doubt it.

  6. Frank J on February 1, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    The tone of this story certainly isn’t consistent with what I heard presented to the Commissioners. The presenter (Mr. Brooks?) kept saying over and over again that while his number one concern was the patient he was also concerned about preserving the fire companies and only proposing to have the ambulances help out when the first fire company was unable to respond. The only think I heard that sounded like it should concern a fire company is that he stated that a lot of the calls only come with a driver and related laws and standards they should meet per the state.

    Listen to it yourself on the county commissioners website: http://ccgov.org/cmup/ws/1.31.12.worksession3.DESambulanceservice.mp3

    • Cecil Times on February 2, 2012 at 8:38 am

      Frank, the president of the Firemen’s Association was not allowed to speak at the meeting, so her views are not heard on the tape. In the interest of getting the other side, we interviewed her and published her comments in this article.

  7. Howitz on February 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    How many of those on the “volunteer” EMS board are also paid providers or county employees? Can you say conflict of interest? Some of the very same people employed by the county and who got quotes for the county ambulances are also “volunteers.” When it comes to their own salary and job security vs being a volunteer, which way do you think they will go? The fox is guarding the hen house.

    Look at the three new county “paramedic” stations and all of the empty bays. Perfect for not only ambulances but fire engines, too. For those out of the loop, fire engines were speced by the county too. Hope you all like outrageous taxes!

    The county EMS program was started to SUPPORT the volunteers. Now they want to replace them. If the county was truly wishing to help the volunteers and the patients they could work WITH the fire companies. The county could offer staffing grants to those who have paid programs or need them. Everything else is already there – ambulances, equipment, buildings, etc. The county could still exercise control over how the money was used. Patients would get fast service and taxpayers would get a bargain.

    As it is, the ambulance billing only helps the volunteers to pay for drivers. Even a fraction of that $5 million could double those programs and put providers in the seats. Why re-create the wheel? Do you really think the county is going to be able to do it more efficiently?

    Its true that the volunteers collect the billing for the services of the county paramedics. This allows the local fire companies to keep their programs going. But once the county gets ambulances they will bill for all of their services – even when the volunteers transport. Don’t be surprised if some of the companies just throw up their hands and sell their ambulances. Some have already offered. They won’t be able to afford to keep them going.

    $5 million from ambulance billing? Think again. The $300 quoted in the story is the average bill. $150 is closer to what the insurance companies pay per transport. An ambulance costs $150,000. You have to run 1000 calls before paying that off. That doesn’t include fuel, supplies, housings, drivers, EMTs or anything else.

    The county can’t keep positions filled as it is. They haven’t had raises in years. How are they going to fill 28 additional positions? And they’re not going to raise any salaries for another four years? One last note to the paid folks out there. If you think this is job security for government employees, think again. It’s not about service. It’s about control. And it’s also about the money…

    • Wayne L. Tome, Sr. on February 9, 2012 at 11:49 pm

      None of the EMS Advisory Board Members are County employees !

  8. Beverly Sutton Lawrence on February 3, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Here’s the thing. The ‘response time’ of an ambulance to a specific call is not determined by whether the staff of the ambulance is ‘payroll employee’ or ‘volunteer’– it’s determined by whether the specific crew and vehicle is immediately available, or otherwise occupied with an existing call.

    The only thing the proposal adds to the equation is a new bureaucratic agency that will require office staff and a new bureau ‘director’ position, with increased salary requirements. The proposal will not mean a shorter wait for an ambulance to respond, it will only mean an additional bureaucratic burden to the taxpayer. I vote ‘nay’ and it does make me wonder if Mr. Brooks doesn’t “know just the right personnel” to staff this new agency and if they don’t just happen to be family members.

    If the County has $4 mill to ‘start’ a new ‘agency/department’, then why not just present the existing VOLUNTEER ambulances services with this windfall, and let them purchase additional ambulances, and staff them with volunteers as has been done successfully for over a century. By undermining the VOLUNTEER aspect of a fire and ambulance company, this proposal undermines the personal involvement of a civic-minded citizen to take an active part in the community in which they reside. The thing that makes a community is the involvement of its citizens, not the response time of a paid employee.

    • Rob on March 18, 2012 at 12:28 am

      So, what is the solution to this problem then? If the “VOLUNTEERS” are paying staff then they aren’t “VOLUNTEERS” anymore. I don’t see where a new agency, service, director, etc. would be called for as Cecil County already has a full EMS department– however, as mentioned, it currently lacks ambulances.

      Regarding response times not being connected to staffing, it would be nice if some statistics were released as part of this. I know for a fact that ambulances are sitting in their stations without staff while calls are going unanswered.

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