On Monday, the Public Safety Committee of the Montgomery County Council recommended 3-0 to restore funding for all three proposed cuts to the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Service, including the proposed cut to the fire engine in Germantown.
In March, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett 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, and a ladder truck in Hillendale. The proposal would eliminate Engine 729 in Germantown, Engine 709 in Hyattstown, and Tower Truck 724 in Hillendale.
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 Council’s Public Safety Committee is made up of three members, At-Large Councilmember Marc Elrich is the chairman of the committee, he is joined by District 5 (Takoma Park/Silver Spring/Burtonsville) representative Tom Hucker, and District 3 (Gaithersburg/Derwood/Rockville) representative Sidney Katz. Also in attendance were Councilmember Craig Rice and Fire Chief Scott Goldstein.
The Public Safety Committee also recommended restoring the $114,780 cut to the local volunteer fire departments and recommended adding six new career firefighter positions to address failures to respond at the Burtonsville Station, which was the impetus for cutting Tower 724 in Hillendale.
“I have to tell you, I really believe this is wrong,” said Katz during the committee meeting. “I think we need to restore all three. We went through this not too long ago. Once we realize that we are talking about people’s lives and the longer the response rate, and Hyattstown is the most dramatic increase, we are literally talking about someone’s life being saved or not. I am certainly in favor of restoring all three, Hyattstown, Germantown and Hillendale.”
The proposed 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 committee heard a presentation from Council Legislative Analyst Susan Farag, in which she talked about the possible budget savings if the fire service units were eliminated, as well as the effect elimination would have on response times in the areas currently served by the units.
Farag told the committee that the full County Council heard testimony from one person, Germantown resident Gracie Rivera-Oven, who spoke in opposition to the elimination of Engine 729 in Germantown, and the Council had also received about 30 emails opposing the elimination of any Fire Rescue units from the budget.
In her testimony, Rivera-Oven said, “Such cuts make no sense, and it puts the public at risk, I a!so want you to think of how such cuts in station 729 have an impact on the morale of the men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us every day. We should be providing more support for them to do their jobs not putting hardships on them. I respectfully ask you on behalf of my community and the men and women that serve station 729 to also oppose such cuts.”
Farag told the committee the elimination of Engine 729 in Germantown would yield a cost savings of $1.3 million and relocate nine full-time firefighters to other stations in the County.
“This is a very densely populated area there were 3,300 incidents in the engine’s first-due area. Elimination of this engine staffing will increase response time, but when an engine is not required the medic unit or the rescue squad will respond with no increase in response times for those incidents,” said Farag.
According to a Council Staff report, the elimination of Engine 729 would increase response times to the engine’s current first-due area by two minutes, from 6:00 minutes to 8:00 minutes.
The elimination of Engine 709 in Hyattstown would yield $2.5 million in savings and relocate 12 full-time firefighters to other stations in the County. There were 189 dispatched incidents for their first-due area, of these calls 148 were EMS calls, 41 were ALS, 84 were no collision EMS calls, two were for structure fires, according to Farag.
The Council Staff report said that response times for the Engine 709 first-due areas without this unit could increase from 6- to 8-minutes to 10- to 12-minutes. “Taking this engine out of service would eliminate 12 FTEs. The incumbents of these positions would be redeployed to reduce overtime costs until vacancies become available due to attrition. Nobody is losing a job. They will be re-deployed,” said Farag.
The elimination of Tower 724 in Hillendale would yield $1.5 million and allow for eight full-time firefighters to be redeployed to other stations in the County.
Both Hucker and Elrich agreed with Katz that all three units should be reinstated in the operating budget. Elrich told Chief Goldstein, “You guys did too good of a job of drilling into our heads the importance of not going beyond the eight-minute response time. Having been beaten into submission on that, I am loathe to say, ‘eh, 12 minutes is okay.’ I don’t see any choice really.”
Councilmember Craig Rice, while not a member of the Public Safety Committee felt the need to address the committee on this topic since two of the proposed units for elimination (Engine 279 and 709) are in his 2nd District.
“Germantown is certainly not incorporated, but if it were it would be the second largest city in the State,” Rice told the committee. “Recognizing that reducing fire service to a population that continues to grow is challenging. I really appreciate staff recognizing that and recommending to place that back in the budget. I will say that one of our fastest growing areas, while it might not be our largest, is Clarksburg.”
Rice then referred to the planned new fire station in Clarksburg which has been in the design and planning stages for some time. “While we have a fire station that is a few years out, in terms of potentially being there to provide service, that Hyattstown station actually provides that service now to help with that community. Certainly, it would create a huge draw on service from the surrounding Germantown stations and the sole Clarksburg station at this point.”
He spoke of the growth in Clarksburg and the new residences and communities which are being constructed in the Cabin Branch area just off Clarksburg Road near the Clarksburg Premium Outlets.
“I certainly understand where OMB and the County Executive are looking for cost savings and containment, but the timing is off because we haven’t built that additional station that will provide us with the additional resources necessary and as we continue to see the Cabin Branch area grow, it is a real concern. We are building houses right now, which are coming online, in an area that is right outside of the area which Hyattstown station serves. We are putting a huge strain on the men and women in our fire service by reducing the station at this point. I would respectfully ask that the committee restore both the Germantown and Hyattstown, as well as the Hillendale stations. It is a little early for us to be making this decision in this budget, we can come back to this in a few years once the Clarksburg fire station is built. I will caution, that Clarksburg continues to grow and we know what the Clarksburg Master Plan looks like and we will have to see what the numbers say. I think it is clear if you look at the map and the service times, I think it is fair to say that the numbers are not there to warrant us moving forward with these cuts. It would put the folks in the Cabin Branch area at a disadvantage when comes to surrounding areas, looking at fire service that comes in a timely manner.”
Along with the elimination of the three units, the FY19 Operating Budget include a proposed cut to MCFRS recruit class from 60 to 28. The recruit class has been decreased to reflect less attrition due to the de-staffing of the three response units as well as a three slot reduction to better align the recruit class with attrition projections, said Farag.
By reinstating the proposed cuts to MCFRS in FY19 Operating Budget, the funding needs will increase by roughly $6.0 million when the associated reductions to the incoming recruit class are also included.
The items which the Public Safety Committee reinstated are placed on what is known as the Reconciliation List, which is made up of items to be placed into the budget from all the County Council sub-committees.
The next step in the process is the full County Council will meet to discuss the MCFRS budget sometime in mid-May and either approve the Committee’s recommendation in full or make its own changes. All the committees add items to the Reconciliation List, and the list will go for full Council approval near the end of May.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.