By Ben Weathers
ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, Md. — A lack of staffing at three Anne Arundel County fire stations is increasing homeowners' insurance rates and putting the public at risk, according to two county councilmen.
Councilmen Jamie Benoit, D-Crownsville, and Jerry Walker, R-Gambrills, who represent the Herald Harbor, Maryland City and Galesville communities, are vowing to push for more fire personnel in the coming budget cycle.
Since 2007, Insurance Services Office Inc., or ISO, has not recognized the fire stations at Herald Harbor, Galesville and Maryland City due to a lack of staffing. Insurance companies frequently use ISO's Public Protection Classification system to determine premium rates.
"Generally speaking, properties in communities with better public protection pose less risk for losses due to fire," a Maryland Insurance Administration spokeswoman, Vivian Laxton, wrote in an email.
"The lower risk will result in more favorable insurance rates. If a PPC rating is lowered, the risk of loss increases, so rates are likely to rise."
This was the case in Herald Harbor near Crownsville, where residents started seeing their rates rise recently, Benoit said.
Benoit, a Herald Harbor resident whose district also includes Maryland City in the westernmost part of the county, said his insurance rate rose between 25 and 30 percent. Although ISO last evaluated the county's fire service five years ago, it took the insurance companies "a little bit of time to catch up with the current," he said.
"They're effectively saying that the Herald Harbor Fire Department is not there," Benoit said.
ISO requires each fire department to have at least four firefighters on staff around the clock. The county fire department has two paid staff members at both Herald Harbor and Maryland City, and three at Galesville in south county, fire department spokesman Division Chief Michael Cox said.
Although the paid staff is supplemented by volunteers at all three firehouses, ISO determined that there weren't enough volunteers available to staff the firehouses with four people around the clock, Cox said.
The fire department has made addressing the issue at all three firehouses a priority in its five-year strategic plan, which was released earlier this year. But the department's plans have been hampered by tightened budgets, he said.
"We've been under significant fiscal constraints the past few years. It's forced us to prioritize where we spend money and utilize our resources," Cox said.
Benoit said that he hopes to see more money for the positions.
"In the next budget, I hope to see funding to staff these three stations at their authorized level so these ISO ratings ... can be changed," he said.
Cox said that only two additional around-the-clock personnel at both the Herald Harbor and Maryland City stations and one such person at Galesville are needed for the stations to be recognized by ISO. But that could translate into 20 additional full-time positions on the county payroll.
Cox noted the three firehouses have lighter call volumes and serve fewer residents than others in the county.
Walker, whose district includes Galesville, said south county residents "deserve the same level of service that someone in northern county deserves."
Safety the issue
Benoit said the issue is public safety.
"People have this false sense of security. They think 'Oh, there's a fire station in my neighborhood, I'm good.' But if there's nobody in that fire station, they're not good."
The District 4 councilman also said that if fire and rescue personnel are tied up on one call and another call comes in, personnel may have to travel from as far away as seven miles.
"When there's only one or two people in house, you don't have the ability to prioritize," Benoit said.
'Tip of iceberg'
Craig Oldershaw, president of the union that represents the bulk of the county's firefighters, accused county officials of "turning a blind eye" to the issue over the years.
The union president said the three firehouses are "just the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to problems with the county's ability to respond to an ever-increasing number of calls.
"One of these days we're going to have that perfect storm of a major loss of property or, God forbid, major loss of life," Oldershaw said. "We've been juggling these balls for many, many years and we hope and we pray we never have that perfect storm. But we can only get lucky for so long."
Cox said that while the staffing levels are not ideal, residents in the three communities shouldn't be afraid.
"Residents of the community should rest assured that there are personnel there seven days a week, 365 days a year that will respond to emergencies," Cox said.
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