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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

DC EXAMINER ARTICLE: Prince George's cutting back on fire service due to budget woes

Prince George's cutting back on fire service due to budget woes

By: Alan Suderman Examiner Staff WriterAugust 4, 2009

Budget woes in Prince George's County are forcing the county's fire department to make service cuts and rely more on volunteer firefighters to do the work of professionals.

Fire Chief Eugene Jones said the moves will cut overtime pay while reducing the amount of unnecessary overlap between nearby fire stations.

"We can no longer continue to operate as we have in the past," Jones said. "Financial challenges will affect many facets of our organization and require alterations to the manner by which we prepare to calls for service."

Fire officials said the county has had the second highest number of staff stations of any local government in the region.

Jones said the Chillum fire station will no longer offer fire service and its career firefighters will move to nearby stations. Instead, the station will house a paramedic unit.

Two other stations -- one in Capitol Heights the other in Riverdale Heights -- no longer will have professional firefighters but will remain open "based on volunteer participation," county officials said.

Fire department spokesman Mark Brady said the budget cuts may affect how quickly fire officials are able to respond to emergencies.

"We're always going to show up," he said. "Response times could be longer in some areas."
The county cut the fire department's budget by $2 million in the current fiscal year to about $110 million.

Brady said the department has been trying to use volunteers to fill gaps in staffing since April in an effort to cut costs. He added that the department, which is already "short staffed," may have to consider more cuts if the county's finances don't improve. There is currently no plan to hire new recruits to replace retiring firefighters, Brady said.

"Certainly, additional actions could be taken," he said.

Calls to the firefighters union were not returned, but Assistant Chief Antwan Jordan told WJLA-TV, Channel 7, that he is concerned that relying on volunteers could pose a serious threat to the community.

The county has about 750 sworn professional firefighters and 1,050 volunteers.

asuderman@washingtonexaminer.com

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