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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Editorial Opinion in GAZETTE NEWSPAPER Regarding Holiday Staffing

Editorial Opinion in today's edition of the GAZETTE NEWSPAPER click here.

Putting out fires

Tight budget means compromises for all — and more suggestions for coping with shortages
The decision to use more volunteers Friday and Memorial Day to staff Prince George's County fire stations has sparked outrage among firefighters, but the preparations and savings involved in the plan should douse any concerns.

The county fire department's overtime budget for the current fiscal year is $3.5 million, a decrease of $2.7 million from last fiscal year. To help keep costs down, the fire department is having more volunteers and fewer career firefighters working Friday and Monday, a practice that has raised concern among both groups. Volunteer officials feel their services are being stretched thin; career firefighters, some of whom will miss out on overtime, say the staffing change will leave gaps in service.

Mark Brady, spokesman for the county fire department, said call volume tends to be lower on holidays, and stations in close proximity of each other will help fill any holes. He also points out that volunteers regularly fill more slots on weekends.

In a nutshell: The public will be safe, and money will be saved.

The budget pinch has been painful for everyone. Government offices are leaving positions vacant; county employees — including public safety personnel — have suffered furloughs; and teachers are facing layoffs. Property values in the county have taken a nosedive, and residents will be hit with an 8.5 percent increase in water and sewer rates beginning July 1. Every effort to save money without risking safety is appreciated.

Bill Smith, president of the Prince George's County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, warned that volunteers cannot fill in so many gaps in the long-term.

"We are doing it now because we understand economic times," he said.

County fire officials must address Smith's concern, if they haven't already, and outline a long-term staffing plan that meets budget constraints without burning out volunteers.

Firefighters are right to raise red flags when staffing changes are introduced, but in such difficult budget times, more than criticism is needed. Residents — and public safety officials — would be better served by discussing future options that prevent overspending but still maintain public safety.