Harford Public Safety Department

Harford County Executive David Craig's plan to create a new department to oversee the county's 12 indedpendent, private fire and ambulance companies may be gaining traction, several people in the fire service say. Above, firefighters from several companies mop up following a fire at the Edgewood Denny's Restaurant in early September. (Nicole Munchel | Aegis staff, Patuxent Homestead / November 29, 2012)

As long as certain wording is changed, Harford County's volunteer fire and emergency medical services companies are mostly in favor of an executive order that will place the companies under the jurisdiction of the county government, several longtime fire service leaders say.

Harford County Executive David Craig has signed an executive order creating a department of public safety which, if approved by the county council, will give the county executive more control over the fire service than it has now.

Although all the fire companies receive annual allotments of money from the county to help defray their operating and equipment expenses, they retain considerable independence from the government.

There is one major sticking point to what Craig is proposing, and it concerns how much control the county department and its director can exercise over individual fire companies, especially at the scene of a fire or accident. Both sides, however, say they believe an accommodation will be reached on that issue.

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Harford has an all-volunteer fire service. A dozen private companies are responsible for answering fire calls in geographic areas established by the companies themselves through an umbrella group known as the Harford County Fire and EMS Association.

Meeting in Jarrettsville Wednesday night, the association's board of trustees voted not to support the executive order "as written," according to Bill Dousa Jr., the association president.

Dousa said he informed Craig of the vote via e-mail Thursday and is hopeful of arranging a meeting between the trustees and the county executive.

Meanwhile, the executive order will be discussed by the Harford County Council at its Dec. 4 legislative session.

A press conference will be held earlier the same day at 11 a.m. in county council chambers at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.

"The topic is the 'Craig Administration Priorities – Final Two-Year Program,'" county spokesman Bob Thomas wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "The topic of the Department of Public Safety will be part of that presentation from the county executive."

The event will be formally announced Friday morning.

Commission endorsement

Earlier this year, Craig appointed a public safety commission to study all emergency services in the county with a eye toward recommending how best to administer them in the future. With a population approaching 250,000 residents, Harford is the largest jurisdiction in the state that doesn't have at least a partially paid fire service.

The commission, whose membership includes several fire service veterans, has endorsed the proposed department.

Tony Bennett, the public safety commission chairman, explained last week that when the earlier study was commissioned by the county executive and fire and EMS association two years ago, it recommended establishing a department to encompass all of the county's emergency services.

The fire service already "sort of reports to the county through various entities," Bennett continued, and the department would ultimately place that responsibility under its designated director. The recommendation was passed on to Craig's office in January.

"A recommendation was made to give the fire service a seat at the executive's table at the county level," Bennett said. "Because we weren't represented at the executive's table, even Craig felt it was important that we be there." Bennett said the county executive was "fully supportive" of the recommendation.

Another reason to create the department, Bennett said, is to ideally help the fire service become at least a partially paid service sometime in the future.

"We're trying to look down the road and [ask] what is the county going to need some time down the road," he said.

Bennett has been a member of the Harford volunteer the fire service for 46 years and has witnessed the county growing and changing over the decades.