Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The economy keeps things interesting

The economic situation (do I get to say depression yet?) and state budgetary shortfall has combined to create some disconcerting situations here locally.

The village of Arlington Heights (pop. 899) was forced to close its volunteer fire department. The city of Reading (pop. 11,292) will provide fire/EMS response to the village. The volunteer department closing was due to budgetary reasons. Hamilton county has over 42 separate fire departments, which means there is likely to be some redundancy in the county. The closing of Arlington Heights makes fiscal sense but what remains to be seen is how Reading will be able to handle the additional runs. Reading, Lockland, and Wyoming fire departments are close enough together that often the responding unit comes from the adjacent town. Essentially what is going on is a regional fire/EMS department in practice but with separate municipalities paying the bills. Even if Reading has the budget to handle the additional load of Arlington Heights, this was done in reaction to a budget shortfall and not as a proactive measure. Now is the time to seriously start looking at more fire/EMS departments combining into a regional department. It saves money in the long run and helps improve response times but combining departments should be done as part of a long range plan and not in response to a financial crisis.

Related to fire/EMS service, front page today in the Enquirer was a story about CSX hauling chlorine through Cincinnati and other major metropolitan cities in Ohio. According to PPG Industries spokesperson, CSX hauls through major Ohio cities rather than alternate routes because they don’t want to lose revenue. CSX counters that rail is a very safe means of hauling hazardous materials (which I don’t disagree with), however choosing routes through major metropolitan areas seems to be inviting disaster. Out of 13 criteria listed in the article, only two dealt with issues outside the influence of the railroad. The weights for these criteria were not given. Emergency response and proximity to landmarks and major cities, the two that were outside the influence of the railroad, may or may not have enough weight to change a route. Given the number of state and county budget reductions to public safety, CSX needs to show more concern about running any type of hazardous materials through metropolitan areas. It may be in the interest of revenue to use these routes but one major spill or terrorist attack to could lead to lives lost and millions of dollars in liability.

The worrisome thing about both of these stories is the decision making all seem to be made in a vacuum. One municipality loses funding for fire while another picks it up without much apparent thought to the impact to the whole region. Railroad routes are selected based primarily on revenue without considering the impact of the economy on local emergency response services. Department of Homeland Security has been sending out warnings now for some time that the US is overdue for a major terrorist attack. Damaging a rail line used to haul hazardous material is less complicated than say hijacking an airliner. Decisions need to include input from all stakeholders, private sector as well as public, whenever services are reduced or when risky activities need to be conducted. Unfortunately, this process is time consuming and may result in being told “no” therefore it remains unlikely that such procedures will be adapted on a wide scale. The next best solution is for community leaders to take an strategic view of the risks to their communities and what resources they need (or have) to deal with those risks.

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