Chief: Cumberland will run ambulance calls outside city for now

A Cumberland Fire Department ambulance pulls onto Mechanic Street from the Public Safety Building.

Developments this week remind us of the story about a barefoot young farm boy and a mule he cannot persuade to rise from its hindquarters and pull the plow.

An old farmer in boots is watching. Directly, he fetches a dead tree limb of substantial size and applies it vigorously to the mule’s head.

The mule stands up and resumes plowing.

“The first thing you got to do,” says the old farmer, “is to get the mule’s attention.”

If Cumberland’s canceling of emergency ambulance mutual aid agreements with Allegany County government doesn’t get everyone’s attention, we don’t know what will (See: “City ending mutual aid,” March 8 Times-News, Page 1A).

The move is understandable, it has been coming for some time, and it should not have taken anyone by surprise. The decision can be rescinded, and it is hoped to have new agreements in place by June.

City administrator Jeff Rhodes said that for too long, city taxpayers have borne the cost of sending ambulances away from the city, and this leaves them unable to respond to local emergencies.

“It’s hard to tell a taxpayer why their ambulance is late,” he said.

Rhodes said the problem was made worse by recent county approval of a plan that would have the effect of requiring city ambulance crews to respond countywide.

“Clearly, that is something we are not willing to do,” he said. “We don’t have the manpower for it. We can’t put that many ambulances on the road.”

He said the problem doesn’t lie with county paramedics or volunteer departments and their personnel, but with a system that sends city ambulances to outlying areas when the responsibility should have fallen to other companies.

City Solicitor Michael Cohen said Cumberland remains willing to respond to fire protection calls on a mutual aid basis.

The Cumberland Fire Department said last year it would no longer respond to routine ambulance calls in the outlying areas of Allegany County, Mineral County (W.Va.) or other areas of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. (See: “City curtailing response to EMS calls in distant outlying areas,” Feb. 8, 2016, Times-News, Page 1A.)

The problem then was the same as it is today: The city does not have enough personnel or money to do what other people expect it to do.

Mayor Brian Grimm said last February the city would continue providing emergency services to Cumberland and districts touching it, and it would serve outlying areas during major incidents.

Our report on the paid paramedic part of Allegany County’s emergency system, published April 17-18, 2016, was not filled with optimism.

Interviews with those who perform the services revealed a tenuous relationship between the county’s paid paramedic system, the paid Cumberland Fire Department and Allegany County’s volunteer fire and ambulance companies.

Some of them believed the system was a good start, but said it had room for improvement and that solutions to the problems could be found.

Others said the system was broken and couldn’t be fixed.

Our report said the arrangement was complicated. Allegany County had 13 ambulance services, eight of them fire/EMS, while four were EMS only and one — Cumberland — was a paid department” (See our editorial, “Mixed reviews: We report on status of county’s EMS system,” April 17, 2016).

Subsequently, the Oldtown Volunteer Fire Department shut down its ambulance service because it couldn’t find enough volunteers willing to become emergency medical technicians and go out on calls.

Some of our communities have difficulty recruiting enough volunteers and raising the funds to fully staff and equip their fire and rescue departments. This is just a fact of modern life.

Our first responders deserve great respect and admiration, whether they are paid or volunteers. They are constantly demonstrating dedication and professionalism. The number of lives they have saved and the value of the property they have preserved are incalculable.

The Times-News occasionally prints letters to the editor from people who want others to know how grateful they are for what first responders have done for them, whether they are firefighters, police officers or emergency medical technicians. The rub is that there are limits to what these people can do.

Dick DeVore, chief of the Allegany County emergency services division, says he respects the position the city is in and wants to work with it to resolve the problem. The city has indicated it wants to work with the county to achieve the same end. (Our coverage of the matter continues on Page 1A of today’s issue.)

The only thing they seem to agree upon is that there is a problem. The time has come for them to sit down and make a serious effort to fix it.

Cumberland’s citizens and taxpayers have a stake in this — but so do the citizens and taxpayers who live outside the city, elsewhere in Allegany County.

Solutions must be found that work for all of them.

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