Sussex County Delaware

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Sussex County Council ...

Fire Services Face
Daunting Task in Future

By ERIC MAGILL
SC Online Publisher

GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council heard some grim news regarding the impact of the county's high growth rate on fire and emergency medical services at its regular meeting on Tuesday, June 25, 2002.

Joseph Murabito, Director of the Delaware State Fire School, asked council to work with the county's fire companies to develop a long-range fire and ambulance plan due to the projected 31 percent growth rate and accompanying rise in emergency services calls in the county by 2015.

"We want to start a dialogue beween the fire services and the county because of the growth we've already had here and in the future and the demand that growth will place on fire services in the county," said Murabito. "We can't thank you enough (for county's past funding), but a lot of things will be needed in the future. Strategic planning must be considered."

Murabito told council that he foresees a day when the county will need "combination" fire companies of volunteers and paid firefighters due to the increased call volumes that will come with the increased population and the decreasing number of volunteers due to the county's aging population brought on by a massive influx of retirees.

Based on 31 percent growth by 2015, Murabito said he believes fire calls will increase 77.5 percent and ambulance calls will increase 40 percent during that period.

In 2000, he said, Sussex fire companies responded to 5,000 fire calls and 15,587 ambulance calls, up from 2,749 fire calls and 10,000 ambulance calls in 1990.

Based on projections of a 2.5 percent increase in fire calls for every 1 percent increase in population and a 1.3 percent increase in ambulance calls for every 1 percent increase in population, Murabito said he believes the county's fire companies will be answering 9,171 fire calls and approximately 22,000 ambulance calls by 2015, for a total count of 31,768.

He said he believes his figures are accurate based on New Castle County figures, which show that county answering 78,000 fire and ambulance calls with a population of 503,000. With 205,000 people in 2015, or roughly 40 percent of New Castle's population, Sussex fire companies can expect to be answering approximately 31,785 calls -- very close to the 31,768 he projects based on historical data in Sussex County.

"When you look at the numbers," Murabito said, "it's not hard to project some of the things going on."

In addition, Murabito said the influx of retirees escaping from cities to retire in Sussex County will increase the county's over-60 population from 19 percent to 27 percent, which will increase calls for fire and ambulance services while reducing the pool of volunteers young enough to work on the front lines of fires.

"Look at counties in Maryland," said Murabito. "They all started out as volunteers. As the population grew, county government had to come in and start putting employees in there. Over time, most of these departments became career departments. I'm not advocating that here, but if you look around us, that has been the pattern. I think we're headed toward a combination fire service in this county."

Locally, Murabito said the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Department experienced a 110 percent increase in calls during the past 10 years, Seaford saw an increase of 113 percent, Lewes 87 percent, and the Indian River company that serves Long Neck, a 188 percent increase.

By 2015, he said Greenwood will be answering 271 fire calls per year, Milton 360, Seaford 872 and Lewes 863. EMS calls in Blades would increase from 609 in 2001 to 1,443 by 2015, and from 1,700 in 2001 to 2,284 by 2015 in Seaford.

Those numbers raised concerns for Councilman George Cole, who questioned how the county's fire companies would be able to sign up enough volunteers to answer more than one call per day when so many volunteers work.

"It's no secret that recruitment and retention are an issue," said Murabito "Education requirements are also a major factor."

He said the county may need to consider code changes to reduce the burden on local fire companies, such as requiring indoor sprinkler systems in all new construction.

While Murabito said he wasn't speaking to ask for money, he did want to alert county officials to the volunteer fire department's needs in the next 15 to 20 years based on that growth and subsequent increases in calls.

"Our goal is to come up with a short-term and long-term plan," said Murabito.

Council members asked if the departments couldn't develop efficiency plans to reduce their burden. Both Cole and Councilman Dale Dukes asked, for instance, why so many companies were called out for small fires. Dukes cited a fire in the Laurel area on Tuesday morning in which five local companies responded to a fire in a small bungalow.

"We hear all the time about overkill," said Dukes.

Murabito said those decisions are made by county fire chiefs, who have a policy of calling on ample resources early to ensure there are enough firefighters, equipment, and water to handle any fire. He said that in the fire Dukes cited, water supply was a concern because of the rural location.

"We're becoming one county department more and more," said Councilman Lynn Rogers, a member of the Milton Fire Department. "We call our neighbors all the time. On a day like today, a man won't last more than 4 or 5 minutes with all the equipment he has on."

Cole then questioned the county's funding formula, saying it should be based on need rather than giving equal amounts to each company. Rogers said the county already does that, as it gives more funding to companies as they reach a certain threshhold.

Rogers then took issue with those who say the volunteer fire companies don't need any more money, citing the "shiny new fire trucks we have". "They don't realize we have to keep our equipment up to national standards, and that costs money," he said.

County Administrator Robert L. Stickels told council that the county has increased fire and ambulance funding 285 percent in the past 10 years, including 49 percent in the past three years. He added that Sussex County contributes twice what New Castle and Kent counties contribute to their fire companies on a per capita basis.

In Other Business ...
  • County Administrator Robert L. Stickels announced that county offices will be closed on Thursday, July 4, in honor of Independence Day. There will be no council meeting on Tuesday, July 2.

  • County Administrator Robert L. Stickels reminded council of upcoming workshops and public hearings regarding the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan update. A joint workshop of the Planning & Zoning Commission and county council will be held on July 9 at 5 p.m. to finalize the plan for presentation to the public at the two public hearings. That workshop will be in the county's West Administrative Complex on U.S. 113 in Georgetown. Planning and Zoning will then hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the CHEER Center off Route 9 in Georgetown. County Council will hold its public hearing at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10, also in the CHEER Center. Stickels said drafts of the updated plan will be made available to the public on Friday, Aug. 28. The county is required to update its comprehensive plan every five years. The update must be completed by October.

  • Council approved a bid of $21,875 for a submersible pump from ITT Corporation for the South Coastal Regional Wastewater Facility.

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