Drivers of Montgomery County firetrucks and ambulances continue to be involved in what officials regard as an alarming number of accidents, causing insurance rates to skyrocket and forcing new policies designed to slow response times to some calls.
In a stern department-wide e-mail last month, prompted by four accidents in a 26-hour period over the Fourth of July weekend, Thomas W. Carr Jr., chief of the county's career firefighters, said the drivers' performance was placing the public and fire and rescue personnel at risk.
"I am sitting in my office on July 4 thankful that I am not in the throes of planning a firefighter funeral or assisting a civilian family with their grief," he wrote. "We must break the chain and we have to do it immediately and that may take radical action. I am prepared to take action."
He added: "I am afraid we continue on the path to catastrophe."
No details about the recent accidents were available yesterday, but Carr's e-mail indicated that there were no injuries.
In May 2003, The Washington Post reported that Montgomery firetrucks and ambulances had been involved in 1,100 accidents in the previous five years, doing so much damage to the fleet that the department risked losing its insurance coverage.
Departmental reviews of the most serious accidents, including crashes that left one motorist dead and more than a dozen injured, found that many could have been avoided had drivers slowed before entering intersections or followed other established safety procedures.
During the first nine months of fiscal 2004, there were 117 collisions, resulting in 182 claims. Final numbers for fiscal 2004, which ended July 1, are not expected for several weeks.
The county's insurance carrier, Volunteer Firemen's Insurance Services Inc., is still covering the department, but last month it raised the annual premium 17 percent, from about $1.38 million to $1.62 million.
Fire officials said they have made numerous attempts in recent years to reduce accidents by improving training methods and encouraging a defensive driving philosophy. But they concede that the trend has not reversed.
"We haven't been able to reduce the number of collisions or claims," said Gordon Aoyagi, the county's fire administrator. "Their behavior is modified for a certain period of time and then what happens over time -- the adrenaline and excitement of responding to calls begins to take over."
There is no established national standard for driving safety in fire departments.
In a memo, Aoyagi said the county was warned by its insurance carrier that Montgomery's losses since 1997, totaling nearly $2 million, "exceed trends from comparably-sized fire service clients on both the East and West coast."
Steven Edwards, director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute at the University of Maryland, said Montgomery is part of a national trend of increased accidents involving rescue vehicles. Last year, he said, 33 percent of firefighter fatalities were caused by vehicle accidents, the highest percentage since 1977.
Aoyagi said he believes several factors are causing the continued high collision rate, including a spate of retirements in the department and lack of money for training. Fire officials also note that the call volume has been increasing about 5 percent per year.
The fire department is not the only first responder facing steeper insurance costs. The Montgomery County police department's insurance premium is also costing taxpayers additional money -- up about $400,000 this year because of increased claims, said Lucille Baur, a police spokeswoman.
Baur said the department is trying to determine how many accidents involving police cars occurred in the past year, and officials have appointed a captain to investigate how collisions can be reduced.
Unlike the fire department, however, the police are self-insured by the county's risk management division. That means they do not face being dropped by their insurance provider. The Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel county fire departments are also self-insured.
The Montgomery fire department uses a private insurance provider primarily because it relies on a number of volunteer fire stations that operate somewhat independently of the county.
Carr and other fire officials have developed what they call a "25-point plan of action" in a renewed attempt to improve driver safety. The plan affects only the county's 1,000 paid fire and rescue personnel and does not apply to the volunteer units, which have their own commanders.
Under the changes, the first units to arrive at a scene are expected to radio other vehicles to slow down if there is no apparent need for a quick response.
By early next month, Carr said, there will also be a new policy that authorizes only certain firefighters to drive to emergency scenes. Currently, any firefighter above a certain career level may drive.
The chief also plans to ask the county fire commission to develop new response procedures for certain medical calls to limit the number of fire personnel needed on the scene.
Additional driver training is also being ordered, Carr said. In January, the county plans to sponsor the first national forum on firefighters' driver safety to discuss the problem of accidents while responding to emergency calls.
"This is a global plan," Carr said. "It looks at driver behavior, types of calls and the resources needed on calls."
County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said he plans to hold hearings on the issue of escalating insurance costs when the council reconvenes in the fall.
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said: "My main concern is more money is being spent on insurance than there should be, and that ultimately impacts what we spend on apparatus and other critical things in fire and rescue service."