County officials pushed to include Hancock in paid fire staffing plan

by Kate Shunney

Hancock’s fire station.

County emergency officials will add paid firefighters to Hancock’s fire response teams under an approved plan. The decision to add paid staff at Hancock’s volunteer company came as Washington County Commissioners took a deep look at response times across the county.

Commissioners approved a regional staffing plan for the Division of Emergency Services on January 14.

During county-level discussions, Commissioner Wayne Keefer noted that response time maps didn’t even include Hancock.

The county’s population is concentrated around the urban centers of Hagerstown and larger towns, so paid fire-staffing plans concentrated in those areas, too.

Keefer said he and others were able to make it clear that Hancock needed to be part of a staffing deployment plan for the county, especially because of its location.

While other jurisdictions like Fulton County to the north and Morgan County to south do have mutual aid agreements with Hancock, Washington County still has a responsibility to provide adequate emergency services to county residents in Hancock, Keefer emphasized.

Dave Hays, Washington County’s Director of the Division of Emergency Services, said the county spent a great deal of time figuring out how to distribute “pockets of manpower” for fire and EMS response throughout the county. In early discussions, Hancock wasn’t slated for additional staff.

“Yours would have come from Clear Spring,” Hays said.

Keefer said a highway map shows clearly that when there are major accidents along I-70 between Hagerstown and Hancock, it simply wouldn’t be possible for other county emergency agencies to bring their units to Hancock quickly.

Population density has to drive emergency staffing decision, Hays said, but “time and distance matters.”

Hancock will have one paid fire staff around the clock under the new plan. That person will add to the volunteer fire personnel that handle emergency calls in this area. According to the county staffing plan, that arrangement means public dollars will pay for three fire personnel in Hancock – one person for every shift around the clock.

Keefer said the county has a pool of pre-screened applicants they can draw from when it comes time to hire the fire personnel needed under the county’s new staffing plan.

Hays said fire companies will start seeing personnel added in their stations this year.

Both Hays and Keefer said the fire staffing plan, which will add 27 additional firefighters to county stations this fiscal year, is compatible with volunteer-run companies and independent fire companies that govern themselves.

“There’s a great deal of respect for volunteer staffing,” said Keefer. “Training is extremely demanding, and there’s less and less time to volunteer.”

“We still have many volunteers. The time they have available to volunteer is limited,” Hays said.

Keefer said the county offers volunteer firefighter incentives, from cash stipends to length-of-service award programs.

County fire service depends on both paid and volunteer firefighters.

Firefighters and residents are both expected to benefit from the addition of paid staff at multiple stations around the county, said Hays.

“When you send out a truck with not enough staff, that’s a dangerous situation,” he said. “That creates a danger not only for citizens but for firefighters.”

The county’s goal, he said, is that every fire truck is sent out of the station fully staffed.