Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Additions to ease strain on firefighters

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Fire stations in eastern Montgomery County will receive additional personnel and new vehicles in the coming year, when plans for a new fire station could also be approved to eventually ease an increasing call load.

The stations will be adding a full-time fourth crewmember to vehicles and receiving new ladder trucks, engines and medic vehicles this year and next year as part of countywide initiatives, said Scott A. Gutschick, planning section manager for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. Those stations include Burtonsville Station 15 on Old Columbia Pike, Hillandale Station 12 near the Beltway and Hillandale Station 24 near Randolph Road. The three stations averaged 25 responses a day in 2006, the last year data was available, Gutschick told members of the East County Citizens Advisory Board on Jan. 2 in reviewing the fire department’s plans for fiscal 2008 and beyond.

Vehicles left the stations an average of 51 times a day in 2006, he added.

‘‘We have a busy call area here, one of the busiest in the county,” Gutschick said.

The fourth person on engines, ladder trucks and medic vehicles also will be trained as a paramedic, increasing a response team’s capabilities, he said.

‘‘You don’t have to wait for a medic to arrive on the scene for advanced life-support service,” Gutschick said. Four people was the minimum requirement for response vehicles until the early 1990s, when budget cuts forced the removal of one person, Gutschick said. Staffing a four-person crew at each station year-round at each station costs an average of $2.3 million, compared to an average of $1.8 million for a three-person crew, Gutschick said Tuesday. The money covers firefighters’ salaries and benefits including insurance and retirement plans.

Hillandale Station 24 has already added a fourth member to response teams, Chief Frank Gaegler said. The new teams mean more people are guaranteed on the scene during the critical first minutes of a fire, he said. Previously, the stations had relied on volunteers as the fourth member.

Burtonsville already has received a new medic vehicle, and all three stations will get new engines equipped with compressed air-foam systems in addition to water hoses. Foam both smothers the fire and coats it to prevent rekindling, Gaegler said.

Hillandale Station 12 is also scheduled to get a new ladder truck, replacing a ladder truck undergoing repairs and recommended last month by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to be taken out of service temporarily, saving nearly $1 million from the county’s fiscal 2008 budget.

Gaegler said the ladder truck was used to reach the upper floors of apartment complexes and office buildings in the Hillandale and White Oak areas, including the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters. He is worried about the potential for tragedy if the station has to wait too long for a ladder truck to arrive from Burtonsville or Four Corners.

‘‘I do not feel the pending budget cuts should affect the ladder truck service at the expense of other services in the county,” he said.

Gutschick could not say how long the station would be without a ladder truck, but said plans were in place for the station to receive a new ladder truck before its current one needed repairs and Leggett announced his proposed budget cuts.

The ladder truck costs $815,000 unequipped, while the medic vehicle costs $163,000 unequipped, Gutschick said Tuesday. The new engines have gone back out for bid, so no price is currently available, he added.

A new ladder truck at Hillandale, combined with Burtonsville’s ladder truck, would provide enough coverage in the east county that a new fire station would not need one, Gutschick said.

The new fire station is included in the proposed 2009-2014 Capital Improvement Program before the County Council. If approved, the station should be up and running within four years, Gutschick said. Early estimates have the new station’s size somewhere between the $7 million, 16,000-square-foot West Germantown station scheduled to open this year and the $15 million, 22,000-square foot East Germantown station scheduled to open next year, he said Tuesday.

A fire department study last year recommended a new fire station in the vicinity of Route 29 and Tech Road after finding a gap in the Calverton area to the county’s suggested 6-minute response time. The new station would have bays for four vehicles, Gutschick said.

A site selection committee chaired by Anise Key Brown, director of the Eastern Montgomery Regional Services Center, will determine the new station’s location.

‘‘If that’s where it’s needed, then we will try to put it there,” Brown said of the Tech Road area.

Brown said she is still forming a list of invitees to the committee, which she wants to include a mix of residents, community leaders and fire and county officials and planners.

Gaegler said the east county stations can handle the current call load but praised planners for thinking ahead.

‘‘As areas develop, you like to have the public services keep up with the development,” he said. ‘‘After the population is there and no space is left to build, it’s too late.”

Burtonsville’s station also will receive more than $1 million to expand its dormitory to 35 beds and add a meeting room. Construction is scheduled to be completed early next year, Gutschick said.