The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad needs money and the town of Chevy Chase has it.
The 73-year-old rescue service recently lost one of its major funding sources, Healthcare Initiative Foundation, and high on its list of needs are two new ambulances, each costing upward of $230,000.
The town of Chevy Chase, which is one of the areas the rescue squad serves, happens to have a $9 million surplus.
Brooke A. Davies, president of the rescue squad, whose headquarters are on Old Georgetown Road at Battery Lane, asked the Chevy Chase Town Council on July 10 to consider funding two new ambulances for a total of about $500,000. Of the six ambulances the squad has, two are old and out-of-date in terms of equipment and technology and need to be replaced, according to Davies.
A few people at the council meeting suggested a donation of $25,000 instead and in the end, the council decided to table the issue until Oct. 9, when a more complete presentation could be made and the public would have a chance to speak.
Since that July meeting, residents have been commenting on the neighborhood listserv and reaching out to council members.
The reaction to the request has been mixed, said Patricia Burda, the toiwn’s mayor.
“Residents have raised a lot of questions. In general, people think $500,000 is too much. What’s really on the table is money for one ambulance,” Burda said. “Some residents feel that it’s not necessarily whether this is a good or bad group — everyone agrees they provide a very important service,” but contributions should be a personal decision rather than a municipal expenditure funded by taxpayers.
Burda said she has not taken a stance and instead is choosing to wait until the hearing to decide.
But others on the council don’t think there is much to discuss. For John Bickerman, who sits on the council and runs a dispute resolution firm, financially supporting the rescue squad is the obvious choice.
“There is no more essential government service,” Bickerman said. “If we are going to have a first-rate rescue squad we have to step up and fill in the gaps. We are fortunate to have a surplus and we can afford to do that.”
“We’ve been serving the town for 70 years and have never asked for money,” said Davies, who grew up in the town of Chevy Chase and still lives there.
For about 30 years, the Healthcare Initiative Foundation, which until 2012 was a charitable support organization, helped pay to replace the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad ambulances. Two years ago, when the foundation became a private nonprofit it also changed its criteria for giving.
The last year it gave to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad was in 2011, according to the foundation’s website.
That money was used to help buy a heavy rescue truck, which can run about $900,000, Davies said. A heavy rescue truck has hydraulic tools used to extricate people from vehicles, along with firefighter tools, ladders and baskets.
The squad, which has about 180 volunteers, went on 9,500 calls last year. Besides Bethesda and Chevy Chase, it also answers calls in Glen Echo, Cabin John, North Chevy Chase and parts of Northwest Washington, D.C.
The rescue service has just started asking for donations from those other municipalities.
While Montgomery County does provide some support — training and radios, for example — everything else is paid for through donations.
Last year, the squad received $1.64 million in contributions and grants, but it still had a $271,071 loss. The biggest expense, $734,000, was for salaries of the weekday staffers. Other costs include medical supplies, utilities, food, fuel and repairs and maintenance of the fleet and equipment. Insurance alone cost more than $175,000.
“We are fully integrated with the county from a service perspective, but we’re not a part of the budgeting process,” Davies said.
All the volunteers are trained to the same standards as the career or paid staff of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Davies said. During the day the squad has a small staff of full-time workers, but volunteers take over from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and on weekends. Davies estimates the volunteer-run service saves the county about $3 million annually.
One of the advantages of being independent of the county, Davies said, is that whatever equipment is bought by the squad stays with the squad. The county can’t come in and decide to shift trucks, ambulances or personnel around to different stations.
The squad reflects the community it serves: Its volunteers include lawyers, physicians and even an astrophysicist. In a region of transplants and busy professionals who don’t have a lot of spare time, Davies said, the dedication of these homegrown heroes is worth supporting.
“You make friends here that will last forever,” Barbara Bryniarski said of the rescue squad. The executive editor of a tax law publishing company, Bryniarski has been a volunteer for 16 years. She grew up in Chevy Chase and graduated from Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School. “I knew some of the guys who volunteer here in high school.”