The increasingly expensive and difficult provision of firefighting and emergency medical services to the county’s unincorporated areas is not a concern restricted to Worcester County and Ocean City governments. It’s everyone’s problem.
Sooner or later, every county taxpayer will have to pay for a needed overhaul of the overall emergency response setup.
That has to happen eventually, as development in northern Worcester continues beyond the communities where fire companies are based, and it’s at a time when recruiting volunteers for these companies is a struggle.
Just this week, Ocean Pines Fire Department officials spoke of trying to replenish their ranks by reinvigorating younger residents’ interest in volunteering. A week earlier, the Berlin Fire Company’s quarterly report to the Town Council showed that half its calls were out of town.
Meanwhile, the population in West Ocean City is nearly equal to Berlin’s, and all this occurred well after fire companies’ areas of responsibility were established. In other words, northern Worcester County has changed dramatically, but the response requirements of emergency service providers have not.
Obviously, county government must depend on Ocean City to cover its public safety obligation to West Ocean City residents, just as it must look to other companies to protect people and properties outside their formal jurisdictions.
Although the county does reimburse service providers for handling these assignments, it isn’t nearly enough, especially in Ocean City’s instance.
Whether the population grows or declines in unincorporated areas makes no difference at this point, because it’s getting older and needs more attention. In addition, answering those calls costs more every year because of constantly climbing training, equipment and outfitting expenses.
That leaves the county with two options, neither of which it will like: either step up its reimbursements to reflect the real costs of service or establish and then try to run its own emergency services division on what it’s paying everyone else.