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Surging fuel prices force some emergency responders to cut services

Some won't respond to nonemergencies, and many have cut back on operations to save on gas.
An NYPD ambulance.
An NYPD ambulance carrying the body of Officer Wilbert Mora arrives at a Medical Examiner's office at NYU Langone Hospital on January 25, 2022 in New York City.Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty Images file

Exorbitant fuel prices have forced some emergency service providers to find ways to cut costs, including by not dispatching first responders to nonemergency calls, cutting back on other operations and reassessing plans to buy new equipment.

On Wednesday, the average cost of a gallon of regular gas in the U.S. was $5.01, far above the $3.07 average from the same time last year, according to AAA.

The climb comes as the nation’s inflation rate further accelerated in May, with prices rising 8.6% from a year ago for the fastest increase since December 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many Americans, agencies that provide emergency services have not been exempt from the strain of skyrocketing costs.

Scott Matice, captain of the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan, said deputies won’t immediately respond to nonemergency calls and will cut back on patrols to save on gas.

“We instructed our officers to not idle their vehicles and to do stationary traffic control rather than patrol and drive all over the place just trying to find violations,” he said.

Matice said that calls where evidence doesn’t need to be collected will be taken by phone and that further gas increases could force the department to limit mileage on vehicles.

“We want officers to be smarter about their patrol but still visible,” Matice said.

In Indiana, the Honey Creek Fire Department will restrict building inspections, use smaller vehicles more frequently and won’t allow firefighters to drive to training courses to save on fuel costs, according to Chief Thomas High. He said his department has responded to 960 calls this year but projects it will get more than 2,000.

Gas prices are soaring for several reasons, including more motorists hitting the road to kick off the summer.

Additionally, many Western nations haven’t purchased oil from Russia, a global oil producer, as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.

In Colorado, John Frank, fleet manager for the South Metro Fire Rescue, said it plans to offset gas costs by having staff maintain and repair their own vehicles instead of outsourcing the work. The department also won’t upgrade its fleet.

“It is important to understand, fuel is always your highest cost. It’s something that we monitor very regularly,” Frank said, adding the department doesn’t have a contract with a fuel supplier to supplement gas prices.

West Virginia's Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle fears rising gas prices will put his department over its fuel budget and require it to siphon money from elsewhere.

“If I can’t get any relief, I’ll have to start cutting equipment,” Zerkle said, adding that his department won't purchase at least six new cruisers at $50,000 each.

Deputies could also stop responding to non-life-threatening 911 calls, he said, but noted that would be a last resort if gas prices rise further and more funds can’t be allocated from the county government.

“The public expects to make a call and somebody comes,” the sheriff said. “They want to see you out on the road being visible and deterring crime. People expect us to be there, and we’re going to be there for them.”

Other emergency response agencies also said they will have to find a way to continue normal operations as fuel prices rise.

“We’re not really in a business where we can cut back on services,” said Greg Porter, assistant director of the Ross/West View Emergency Medical Services Authority in Pittsburgh. He projected the authority will exceed this year's fuel budget by at least $30,000 and said vehicles will now run for shorter periods of time.

“If folks call 911, we have to go. That’s just the nature of the business,” Porter said, adding that inflation has also driven up the costs of their medical and cleaning supplies.