Back in January, when Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett first introduced his Fiscal Year 2019 Operating Budget it contained plans to eliminate two fire engines from the UpCounty, one in the heart of Germantown and the other in Hyattstown. The County Council reinstated those fire engines in their recommendation to Leggett, however, the cuts to fire safety for the UpCounty are back in Leggett’s final $5.56 billion operating budget which he submitted last Friday.
The budget, which is Leggett’s last as County Executive, contains an overall two percent increase of the Fiscal Year 2018 Operating Budget. The County’s new fiscal year begins July 1, 2018. The County is also continuing to struggle with dealing with an estimated $120 million budget shortfall.
The proposal would eliminate two fire engines from the 5th Battalion and an aerial ladder truck from the 1st Battalion of the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Service.
The shortfall, which was announced in December, comes from a decline in projected income tax revenue. The County Executive's plan includes $60 million in savings from the fiscal year 2018 budget and about $13 million from the capital improvements program. If the gap is not closed through cuts to current services, it may have to be cut from the fiscal year 2019 budget.
Leggett’s proposed plan makes cuts to almost all County departments, but one that should be troubling to residents of Germantown was the proposal to eliminate Germantown Paramedic Engine 729, which runs out of the Fire Station 29 on Crystal Rock Drive next to the Montgomery County Police 5th District Headquarters.
The elimination of Paramedic Engine 729 will leave Germantown’s 100,000 residents with just two full-time, round-the-clock, professionally staffed fire engines, Engine 722 housed at the Kingsview Fire Station 22 at corner of Germantown Road and Clopper Road, and Engine 734 housed at the Milestone Fire Station 34 at Rt. 355 and Boland Farm Road. Volunteer Engine 729B, which is owned and operated by the Germantown Volunteer Fire Department will remain at Crystal Rock Drive but the full-time firefighters and the apparatus will be reassigned.
Leggett is also once again proposing the elimination of the paid crew and Engine 209 based in Fire Station 9 in Hyattstown, which is located on Rt. 355 just south of the border with Frederick County.
“The County Executive yet again has included the cuts that were proposed in the savings plan,” said District 2 County Councilmember Craig Rice, who represents Germantown and Hyattstown. “While I am disappointed that the County Executive’s Office of Management and Budget staff decided to try to yet again deny people adequate fire service in the bustling regions of the UpCounty, I am confident we will be able to restore the cuts as we did before during the savings plan deliberations. It is on our list of requested restorations,” said Rice via text message to Germantown Pulse.
Fire Station 29 houses Paramedic Engine 729, Rescue Squad 729, Ambulance 729, and Swift Water Unit 729, all of which are owned by Montgomery County and manned by professional firefighters on the county payroll. Fire Station 29 also houses Engine 729B, which is owned and manned by members of the Germantown Volunteer Fire Department.
If the cuts go through and Germantown loses a full-time fire engine one local volunteer firefighter believes it will have negative impact on the community.
“Our Station 29 is going to get a lot busier in the near future with the additional development planned for the central area of Germantown,” said Matthew Hermanson, president of the Germantown Volunteer Fire Department, which runs out of Fire Station 29. “Germantown is getting bigger, and right in Station 29’s first-due area there are plans for a massive development there are apartment complex, shopping centers, hotels, and retail coming to that area and it is going to get so busy and one of the biggest issues which will face the Fire Department is the assisted living which is planned for the area.”
Hermanson is referring to a pair of development projects. The first is located on Century Boulevard on what was once known as the Century Technology Campus near Cloverleaf Center Drive calls for 160 townhouses, 28 2-over-2 dwelling units, five multi-family buildings with a combined 300 dwelling units, as well as over 300,000-square-feet of office space and an 85,000-square-foot hotel.
The other is the Black Hill Germantown which will is being touted by its developer Rockville-based Lerner Enterprises as a mixed-use a 110-acre residential community and office campus with “over 3 million square feet of upscale office, residential, assisted living, retail and hotel sites are conveniently located within a natural setting. Black Hill will offer a vibrant sense of place for residents and employees alike.”
That development will be located at the western end of Crystal Rock Drive and Century Boulevard, which sits right in Engine 729’s first-due area. The planned development will bring three high-volume residential buildings, and at least six mid-volume residential buildings, and an assisted living facility.
“Assisted living facilities require a lot of fire rescue/EMS services,” said Hermanson. He pointed to Station 708 which is highly touted by MCFRS as the busiest in the County. Station 708 is located near the Asbury Methodist Village, which is the largest continuing care retirement community in the county and 14th largest in the nation, with 1,400 people residents 60-years or older living at Asbury Methodist Village.
Indeed, according to Firehouse Magazine’s Annual Run Survey, MCFRS Paramedic Engine 708 was the 62nd busiest fire engine in the country with 4,121 runs in 2016.
The fire rescue service wants to take the medic from Paramedic Enegine 729 and put him/her on Rescue Squad 729 which runs out of the same firehouse, according to Hermanson. “There are only six rescue squads in the County. Now, you are taking one of those rescue squads away from its intended use and using it for medical calls,” he said. “The purpose of a rescue squad is to respond to a car accident or a building collapse. That is why it is there and because it has a specific purpose the rescue squad has a larger first-due area. What is going to happen if that rescue squad needs to go out for a car accident or a building collapse and a medic call is needed in Germantown. It could possibly hurt us in the long run.”
He also said that running the rescue rig will ultimately be less economical. “That rescue squad will certainly have a higher call volume, and decreasing the life of the machine,” said Hermanson. “A rescue squad costs over $1 million to replace, and fire engine costs about $600,000. Medical calls are the most frequent calls for the fire rescue service in the county.”
In January, the County Council’s Public Safety Committee recommended 3-0 that all response units be maintained. In January, Susan Farag, a Legislative Analyst with the County said, “The only savings taken from Fire was approximately $54,000 that would have been distributed to Local Fire and Rescue Departments through our Emergency Management Services Transport (EMST) fund,” said Farag. “The savings plan had proposed that this reduction be $268,458, or 10 percent of the budgeted amount for FY18.”
However, Farag confirmed that the latest budget proposal from the County Executive does include 1.7 percent reduction in the County’s Fire Rescue Service budget. Under proposed plan, MCFRS' annual spending would drop from $214.9 million to $211.3 million.
The proposal would eliminate the crews running those fire engines, which according to a memo from County staff to members of the Public Safety Committee will impact staffing levels at each fire station. Those firefighters will be reassigned within the MCFRS.
According to DataMontgomery.com, in 2017 Fire Station 729 responded to 607 fire-related incidents, which include structure fires, brush fires, vehicle fires, gas leaks, and personal injury collisions. That equals about 51 runs per month, or 1.7 runs each day. Those runs do not include the times when Engine 729 responded with paramedics on board to medical incidents. In total units from Fire Station, 29 responded to 14,620 emergency calls in 2017.
Total estimated annual savings for eliminating Paramedic Engine 729 is $499.000.
The DataMontgomery.com data shows that the other two full-time professionally staffed fire engines are already quite busy. Fire Station 34 responded to 629 fire-related incidents in 2017, or 52 per month, or 1.8 per day. As for Fire Station 22, it responded to 397 fire-related calls in 2017, as per DataMontgomery, which equals 33 per month or about 1.1 per day.
“That engine is a key part of what is going to keep Germantown from not being overrun with calls,” said Hermanson. “There are also numerous times throughout the day when engines 722 and 734 are out on calls and 729 has to respond to those areas. I think the numbers show the call volume and the need for three engines in Germantown.”
Engine 709 is the unit in the MCFRS with the lowest call volume. “In calendar 2017, the station had 189 calls in its first due area. Of those, Engine 709 responded to 162 calls, only two of which were for structure fires,” read the Public Safety Committee Staff memo.
While Engine 709 responded to a far lower number of fire-related calls than that of Engine 729 — the cut will mean increased response times to emergency incidents in the far UpCounty areas of Clarksburg, Boyds, Barnesville, and Damascus. The move would reassign 12 employees to other fire stations in the county. The cost savings are estimated at $899,000 annually. The move would make Fire Station 709 become a fully volunteer firehouse in a very rural section of the County.
Fire Station 9, located at the intersection of Frederick Road and Old Hundred Road in Clarksburg, houses the Hyattstown Volunteer Fire Department. Aside from Engine 709, there are four other units which operate from that location; Tanker 709, Brush Engine 709, and Ambulance 709.
Leggett’s plan also calls for the elimination of Aerial Ladder 724 in Hllandale, which is staffed full-time with a crew of three career firefighters who would be moved to Station 15 in Burtonsville. The move would result in an annual savings of $494.000.
The Montgomery County Council will hold five public hearings on the County’s proposed FY19 Operating Budget. The public hearings will be held at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, April 10; at 1:30 pm and 7:00 pm on Wednesday, April 11; and at 1:30 pm and 7:00 pm on Thursday, April 12. All hearings will be held in the third floor hearing room of the Council Office Building at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. More than 150 people are expected to express their views about budget priorities and the general structure of the County’s budget.
The hearings also will be available via streaming on the Council’s web site. The number of speakers for public hearings is limited. Those interested in testifying can sign up online or by calling 240-777-7803.
Photos by Germantown Pulse