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Bel Air fire chief cites generational divide in Facebook comments

For Eddie Hopkins, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company virtually runs in his blood.

Since signing on with the fire department 39 years ago, he has taken over the mantle that his father and members of his extended family carried since the 1940s. Protecting not only that heritage, but also the public image of the fire company was why he acted swiftly in handling the recent Facebook controversy involving volunteer firefighters and comments they made about not getting a discount at the Bel Air Sonic restaurant.

Hopkins' father actually died in the firehouse, where he suffered a heart attack in 1974. That was only a year after young Eddie Hopkins joined the fire company at age 16.

Now chief of the company, Hopkins said it seemed natural for him to be part of the effort to provide emergency services in Bel Air, where he has spent his whole life.

"I was following in my father's footsteps," he said, explaining he had watched his dad and relatives always helping their neighbors.

"I think that whole sense of community is what my mom and dad taught me as a kid," he said.

That sense of community extended to several other roles in which Hopkins has served around town, including Bel Air town commissioner.

He was a sworn deputy for 29 years with the Harford County Sheriff's Office, where he mostly served as a detective in the criminal investigation division; he also led the Child Advocacy Center, which investigates child sexual abuse.

After spending 11 years as watch commander for the Northern Precinct, he was spokesman of the office for 10 years – eight as a deputy, then two years as a civilian after he retired he retired in the summer of 2003.

Hopkins, who left the sheriff's office entirely in the fall of 2005, has also been chief of staff for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

With the fire company, Hopkins was assistant chief through the 1980s and early 1990s, then took a break from being an officer to focus on raising his sons, 21-year-old Chris, 18-year-old Rob, who graduated last week from Bel Air High School, and 15-year-old Danny.

He ultimately took over as fire chief in December 2011.

The job has meant making some important decisions, and Hopkins said he sees the company as a business.

"Being a volunteer fire chief in a company this size is really akin to running a full corporation," he said. "You have to be detail-oriented and pay attention to it."

With a background in public administration and experience as a police officer, as well as his current stint with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, Hopkins has maintained his low-key, business-like approach to running the fire service, an operation with a budget of about $2 million.

The company also has about $103,000 budgeted for capital projects, Hopkins said.

Even in the wake of his recent decision to suspend or demote four firefighters for making threatening posts on Facebook after a less-than-satisfactory experience trying to get discounts at Sonic, Hopkins seemed composed and talked matter-of-factly about the situation, which likely comes from years spent in front of television cameras and dealing with questions from the media on a regular basis.

He said the incident, which some firefighters are planning to appeal, is clearly the result of a generational divide in the fire company.

"While they are heavily [based] in tradition, the fire service is recognizing it has to change with the time and move forward," Hopkins said.

Although the fire service has to adapt, Hopkins noted the younger generation also has to respect the organization's history and tradition, and therein lies the problem.

"The new generation has to recognize that tradition got us to where we are today and they have to respect that," he said.

He said they have to realize that older members who grew up with the fire service and spent their entire lives there are "extremely proud" of what they have helped establish.

Also, when the public sees, "in one fell swoop," as many as eight people making derogatory comments, that can start to erode the public's confidence, he said.

"These younger members have to understand that our company is built on a promise to the community," Hopkins said.

The fire chief said the company is essentially split down the middle on the issue, with the more traditional members thinking the comments should not have been made and the younger ones feeling it was less consequential.

With 39 years in the company, Hopkins is one of the "old school" members, which is why he moved quickly when this incident was brought into the public spotlight.

"The screen shot was staring me in the face," Hopkins said. "When you see that, right away you are looking, in my mind, on a preponderance of evidence."

He explained that how he perceives the incident is less important than how the situation might affect the public image of firefighters.

"Firefighters are one of the few professions where when people call you, they trust you implicitly," he said. "A fire service cannot afford for a story of this magnitude to really grow legs."

He has gotten e-mails from fire chiefs across the country, with some being supportive and some wondering why he acted so fast.

"I believed in my heart there was no mal-intent, but that doesn't make a difference. What I believe and what the public believes are two different things," he explained.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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