Public safety debate not over in Ocean City

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Public safety debate not over in Ocean City Public safety debate not over in Ocean City

OCEAN CITY — How the staffing at the police and fire departments will change remains an open discussion for the city, after Ocean City Council hosted its second public safety workshop Thursday, Dec. 19 at the Ocean City Library.

The public finally had its chance to comment on the current financing of police and fire departments as the first meeting on the topic ended before comment could commence.

There wasn’t any new information from the first workshop on Nov. 14 where Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Breunig unveiled staffing changes he had planned for his department, including reallocating staff to create positions of a training officer, a fire inspections officer and a community education or resource officer.

At that meeting, Breunig also presented a plan to reduce overtime by using part-time emergency medical technicians during the summer months. He acknowledged the significant amount of overtime the fire department incurred in the last year, which he said was due to longtime leaves due to injury or illness.

At the same meeting, Ocean City Police Chief Chad Callahan also discussed staffing in his department, reporting on the organization of the department and comparing the staffing to other shore communities.

Councilman Michael Allegretto asked how Breunig envisioned the summer staffing model to be implemented. Breunig said it would involve increasing the department’s current pool of seasonal employees and scheduling changes.

“We’re going to have to pay attention and forecast our scheduling,” he said.

He said the goal is to avoid overtime and planning ahead is better than being reactive.

Allegretto also asked about the new positions and how they would be used to respond in an emergency. Breunig said it will involve putting together new procedures, but that person who would allocated to day work Monday through Friday is going to be available to respond to calls if needed. He said that the three fire stations will still be fully staffed with firefighters and EMTs and that depending on the severity of the call, the department may do a partial recall or a full recall, requesting off-duty firefighters to respond.

With the amount of overtime incurred last year, especially from injuries, Breunig said he is looking into implementing more training for the firefighters.

In response to Councilman Pete Guinosso’s inquiry about outsourcing EMT work, Breunig said he doesn’t think Ocean City has the call volume to make it profitable for private companies. Hartzell said he has done his own research on the topic and agreed with the fire chief.

Through billing and collections, much of the cost of the EMTs is offset, Breunig said.

Guinosso also asked about a state audit several years ago, which suggested closing the south end station at 46th Street. City administrator Mike Dattilo said he was familiar with the report, which he said also suggested instituting a volunteer corps. He said Mayor Jay Gillian is the third mayor in a row who doesn’t support that idea.

Current response times are, on average, below the national standard of about 4 minutes of travel time, Breunig said, attributing it to the three-station model.

Breunig said that fire trucks travel more slowly than police when responding to an emergency due to the size of the trucks, which makes it more difficult to stop and slow down at intersections.

Guinosso asked if there was consideration for having police as first responders because he felt that they arrived to emergencies before the fire department did a majority of the time.

Callahan said that the police department is looking to purchase three automated electronic defibrillators for their police vehicles. At the last public safety workshop, Callahan said that the department is also considering EMT training for its employees, in addition to the CPR training it currently requires.

During an emergency, he said, police are taking care of other duties like crowd control and traffic control. As far as who arrives first more often, Callahan would have to look at those statistics to know for sure.

“Every situation is different,” he said. “Certainly our job here is to get the best response times.”

Councilman Keith Hartzell commended the departments and said that no one wants to decrease the level of service in the city. Through recent efforts, he said, the police department has been able to reduce overtime costs and not diminish service and he would like to see the same thing done in the fire department.

“I feel very good about this process,” he said of the forum, adding that it’s not the final product.

“The bottom line is we’re trying to save tax dollars here. We’re trying to cut down on overtime and were trying to make things easier for the taxpayers as we move forward,” Councilman Scott Ping said.

He said he doesn’t want to get into a position where council has to make a decision about people losing their jobs due to the high costs of the department.

“We have to have an open mind and we have to move forward together,” he said.

Before the November meeting, the last City Council workshop on public safety was in 2012 to discuss the possibility of using part-time EMTs, as suggested by Ping and Hartzell.

The public comment Thursday was mostly positive on the job that each department was doing in terms of protecting the community.

Michael Hinchman, president of Fairness in Taxes, a local community watchdog group, said he believed the presentations from the previous meeting were flawed and should have included maps of where the crime is in the town and where the fire calls come from. Hinchman, like others, said that the perception is the police department is overstaffed in the winter months.

“Part-timers can help us dramatically,” he said.

Bill Hartranft noted the amount of police officers stationed near the schools.

“We do have a strong presence at our schools, and that’s for a reason. I’m not going to change that,” Callahan said, adding that the Ocean City Police Department and the Ocean City School District have a great relationship.

“That’s what makes Ocean City unique. That’s why people want to send their kids to our schools,” he said.

Gillian said he doesn’t believe that the police department is overstaffed, but that the department is staffed at a level that makes officers available for the schools.

Ping said it is overstaffed, but that as a year-round business owner, he sees the value in being overstaffed in the winter months.

“Without that core that you have, that you carry during the winter, you cannot do the job correctly in the summertime,” he said.

He agreed that having officers available for things like a strong police presence in the schools was a good thing.

Jim Tweed said there was one elephant in the room.

“Where’s the money for roads, alleys, drainage, beach replenishment, boardwalk reconstruction, bay dredging going to come from?” he asked.

Tweed said he was not sure how the city could address future infrastructure costs without looking at salaries and benefits in both departments.

John Murphy, president of the Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association Local 27 which represents the firefighters in the city, said that there are two different conversations happening: one on overtime and one on reallocation of resources.

He said his union is willing to discuss the reallocation of staff, but didn’t want to confuse the two issues.

“The guys care, and to take guys off the street and put them in the office is wrong,” he said of Breunig’s plan to create three new positions.

Murphy said it was “disingenuous” to discuss the new positions at a public meeting when the outcome is still undecided.

Breunig and city business administrator Mike Dattilo acknowledged that there are contractual and civil service issues associated with the plan.

Dattilo said that related to the suggested new position of fire inspector, the revenues associated with this position are inspections-based. He said that $70,000 from the city currently goes to the state to handle inspections.

“Those revenues would stay local,” he said, if there was a local fire inspector.

Dattilo said that the fees may increase, and that the administration will look at the current mercantile and smoke detector fees, as well.

“We’re certainly not going to have a heavy-handed approach in terms of fines,” he said. “The administration has taken a kinder, friendlier approach to certain types of fines like parking tickets and things of that nature.”

Dattilo said that both Callahan and Breunig believe it is better to educate and change behavior than issue citations.


Ocean City fire chief unveils staffing changes at public safety workshop

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