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Thursday, August 27, 2009

GAZETTE NEWSPAPER - New Prince George's chief tackles new problems

New Prince George's chief tackles new problems

More station reductions, more paid and volunteers needed, Jones says

by Daniel Valentine Staff Writer - Gazette Newspaper and Gazette.net

Fire Chief Eugene Jones is attempting to keep the county's fire and emergency medical services operating effectively in the face of budget woes. Jones became chief of the fire department this summer.

After 26 years as a Prince George's County firefighter, Eugene A. Jones has learned the benefits of a quick response. Now he's learning how it applies to command.

Jones, who was appointed to chief of the Prince George's County Fire and EMS Department this summer, first learned he would be taking over the job one week before he replaced Lawrence Sedgewick, who had resigned in February.

Since then, Jones, 48, has spent plenty of time putting out fires of his own, meeting with volunteer fire companies who had been on the outs with the previous chief over a lack of communication and bureaucratic delays and trying to find a way to keep the county's fire service operating effectively amid a curtailed budget and staff departing for retirement and other jobs.

"We have 698 [paid firefighters] right now," Jones said in an interview at his office in Largo on Friday. "We had 746 this time last year. So that's not good."

To make up for county-mandated reductions to overtime and staff levels as well as furloughs, Jones this summer instituted a strategy of scaling back paid firefighters and EMS workers at county stations as well as slashing overtime for the paid firefighters and paramedics. The county is instead relying on volunteers to pick up the slack. He announced last month that he was transferring paid workers at two stations in northern Prince George's County to boost levels at nearby stations, leaving the responsibility of answering calls to volunteers in the reduced areas.
Though local officials and union leaders have worried that the move will reduce local response, Jones and staff say the nearby staff is able to overlap coverage, making the system more effective.

So far, the approach has worked, said Jones, who said response times remain acceptable in the county, which ranks among the 13th busiest departments in the United States.
It hasn't been without a few flare-ups. Jones' appointment before the County Council in July was marked by a rare note of disapproval from the county's union for firefighters and paramedics, who said the cutbacks have compromised "the safety and quality of services … at levels we've never seen before."

The harsh words prompted another quick action by Jones, who said he met with Union President Doug Bartholemew hours after the meeting to resolve his concerns. The union leader did not return calls for comment.

"Everyone has to advocate for their position, and I understand that," the chief said of the union.
The reductions at neighborhood stations are also hitting home with local governments and residents, who have been coming out to community meetings worried about their local coverage for emergencies.

But Jones said he's been buoyed by the way volunteer firefighters have stepped up to handle the extra load, including providing at least 12 hours of coverage on weekends.
"It's quite challenging to be a volunteer," he said. "Even though I've never been one. They're just as capable. They just play a different role."

It's a refreshing attitude for the department chief, the heads of the county's volunteer commission and association have said.

"This fire chief has renewed our faith," Vince Harrison, vice chair of the county's volunteer firefighter's commission, an elected group made up of the various volunteer companies. "We feel like we are a player at the table."

Harrison and other volunteers did not return calls for comment for this story.
More struggles lie ahead, Jones said, adding that the county is likely to scale back service at other stations as it attempts to reconcile staffing and need. That could lead some local stations to shut down, a move that never resonates well in a community.

"There's a huge political process to it," Jones said. "Everybody sees that community station as theirs."

Financial considerations are at play as well. Volunteer groups and local councilmen have said that the county's budget doesn't have a spare $10 to $13 million for new stations to be built.
But as more people have moved to new subdivisions and communities, the old stations in Prince George's towns don't have the same prime location as new stations set for Landover, Brandywine, Bowie, Jones said.

One way of keeping the old stations operational will be garnering more support for local volunteer companies to keep the old sites active. The department is actively recruiting young people to join the unpaid force of about 1,250 members, and is encouraging residents to donate time or money to keep the groups afloat, Jones said.

"If we could get 2,000 volunteers, that would be monstrous," said Jones, who said young people who volunteer could get a head start on a medical career as well as a gateway to being hired by the department in the future.

More than 80 percent of the department's calls for service are for medical emergencies. The other 20 percent are for fires or other non-medical emergencies.

And with at least 120 paid firefighters eligible for retirement, the county needs to step up hiring, said Jones, who added that he plans to ask the county council next month for funding to hire about 50 new recruits to offset losses. Currently, there is no money budgeted for hiring new firefighters and paramedics until July 1, 2010.

"We are not staffed appropriately," he said.

E-mail Daniel Valentine at dvalentine@gazette.net.
Other stories in todays edition of the Gazette Newspaper
Recent Upper Marlboro, Oxon Hill fires classified as Arson
Spat linked to blaze that injured firefighter
County Fire Chief praises Beltsville Firefighters