Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Budget cuts could affect emergency services

Glen Echo Fire Department may lose night and weekend ambulances

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Jeff Hearle, president of the board that administers the Glen Echo Fire Department, started the ‘‘Save our Ambulance” campaign when he learned of proposed budget cuts that would affect night and weekend staffing on the fire department’s ambulance.
Residents are worried about proposed county budget cuts that would affect night and weekend ambulance service in Glen Echo.

As a part of a budget reduction plan proposed by Fire Chief Tom Carr, career firefighters who operate the ambulance in Glen Echo and Laytonsville would be transferred to Gaithersburg and Aspen Hill during nights and weekends.

During that time, ambulances would respond to Glen Echo emergency calls from Cabin John or Bethesda, said Jeff Hearle, president of the board that administers the Glen Echo Fire Department. This could significantly increase ambulance response time to the area, Hearle said.

‘‘Public safety should not be subject to the same cuts as other departments in Montgomery County that are non-critical,” Hearle said.

The recommendations were forwarded by County Executive Isiah Leggett to the County Council in late December, and the council is expected to review the proposed cuts soon after it returns from recess on Tuesday. No date has been set for a vote.

To deal with the budget issue, Hearle suggested reallocating certain staff for fire equipment that is currently operated by four staff members.

The proposed budget cuts come as the county attempts to mitigate a looming budget shortfall. According to a December memo issued by Carr, the Fire and Rescue Service is reducing the budget by $3.7 million over the next six months in response to a directive from County Executive Isiah Leggett for county departments to reduce their fiscal year 2008 budgets by 2 percent. Fiscal year 2008 ends June 30.

‘‘No cut is easy,” Carr said. ‘‘We very carefully analyzed all the possibilities and came up with the decision in order to make the 2 percent cuts.”

The proposed cuts would also affect the Germantown and Hillandale fire houses, Carr said. Germantown would lose a rescue squad, while in Hillandale, a ladder truck that is currently having maintenance problems will be placed out of service. The plan was submitted Dec. 21 for review by Leggett, who has submitted them to the County Council for final consideration, according to the memo.

‘‘These are the basic, vital services that are so important to the community,” said Denise Zeck, president of the Glen Echo Heights Citizens Association.

Zeck said she is opposed to the measure and fears for the safety of the many elderly residents of Glen Echo who would be impacted by increased ambulance response time.

‘‘We don’t want to put them at risk,” she said.

Hearle estimates the department serves around 13,000 residences and 2,000 businesses, and said a large portion of the residents being served are elderly.

Francesa Grifo, a neighbor of the Glen Echo Fire Department who heads the Glen Mar Park Community Association, echoed the sentiment.

‘‘It’s a significant safety issue,” Grifo said.

Elderly Glen Echo residents may not be able to drive to a hospital in the event of an emergency, making them more reliant on ambulance services, Grifo said.

Carr said there would be no delay in first responders arriving to emergencies on fire vehicles. The responders would have the same qualifications as staff that would have arrived on an ambulance, Carr said.

‘‘They only thing they won’t be able to do is provide transport [to the hospital],” Carr said.

Carr said ambulances from the Bethesda Chevy-Chase Rescue Squad, along with the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, would arrive shortly after to provide the transport.

Hearle said he is concerned that increased response times could interfere with patient care by delaying their arrival to the hospital. Getting a patient to a hospital quickly is critical to safety, he said.

‘‘One of the basic precepts of pre-hospital care is that definitive care is provided at the hospital,” Hearle said. ‘‘It’s your job to get them to the hospital.”

Hearle started a ‘‘Save Our Ambulance” campaign, setting up an e-mail account that residents could use to automatically contact each council member. Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist.1) of Potomac said he has received more e-mails from concerned citizens about the ambulance service than any other issue.

‘‘I believe there are other ways we can save [money],” Berliner said. ‘‘The increase in response time could mean life or death.”