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.
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.
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.
"It just keeps growing as far as time commitment and when you're 100 percent volunteer, it becomes difficult," he said.
Sooner or later, he continued, the issue will have to be addressed if Harford's fire companies remain entirely volunteer or if they move to some paid, full-time employees.
"I think a lot of it comes down to how different factions view different communication and wording," Bennett, a 46-year member of the Aberdeen Fire Department, said. "There is some resistance to the executive order already, and that is created by the fact that when orders are drafted by people who may not be in the middle of a specific arena they're drafted from their perspective."
Bennett believes part of the resistance comes from the different companies worried that the county will have too much control over what is done and part of it comes from the county council.
He remains confident, however, that everyone would be amenable to working out any wording in the executive order that people have an issue with and coming up with something everyone would be happy with.
In the long run, Bennett said, he feels the department of public safety "will allow us to focus the support of the system and build ultimately a better fire service for the citizens."
Questions for fire service
Bennett told the commission during its regular meeting, held in Aberdeen Tuesday, that he met with Craig and Director of Administration Mary Chance on Nov. 14 to discuss the executive order.
Bennett said Craig posed questions the county executive wants the fire service to address over the next few months. They include:
What would be an appropriate baseline fleet based on expected and current volumes throughout the county and in specific companies?
What would be a "true" financial cost for providing EMS service countywide and within each company?
With regard to the latter, Bennett said, Craig wants EMS only review of the companies' financial records to understand expenses and revenue they receive when their ambulances are deployed.
Bennett also said there has been "push back" to the executive order, but Craig has agreed to change the paragraph that has garnered most of the contention from the fire service regarding who would be in command of the fire and emergency service operations.
As the order currently reads, "the Department of Public Safety shall be responsible for the coordination, command, control and the oversight of the fire and emergency service operations, services and other support organizations to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Harford County."
The fire companies want to maintain control of their services and operations, particularly at the fire scenes within their territories, or fire boxes.
Bennett added that draft language has been offered to "correct" that paragraph.
"We're really pushing to get this taken care of," he added.
Bennett urged people to attend next week's county council meeting and "show support for this [executive] order."
Steve Gamatoria, treasurer at Susquehanna Hose Company of Havre de Grace and a member of the public safety commission, said after Tuesday's meeting he agrees the wording of the executive order dealing with fire scene control is the biggest "bone of contention" and made people nervous.
"Once that's removed," he said, "the idea of the whole department of public safety, I think the whole county is on board with the executive order."
Gamatoria has been involved with the fire service since 1978. Today, he said, "there is more communication between the county and the [fire and EMS] association, and I think some of the credit is to the commission to being there, raising the questions and forcing both sides to come together."
He believes the intention of the proposed department is "not to take over anything — it is to advocate." The executive order, he continued, will "absolutely" help with that mission.
"There is so much the county has to offer that the fire service just doesn't get to take advantage of," Gamatoria said, such as a conduit for the fire and EMS service to the county administration and purchasing power. "That's where I see a huge advantage that a lot of people aren't thinking of at a macro level."
Waiting for new wording
Aberdeen Fire Department Chief Steve Hinch reiterated that there were initial worries with the wording of the executive order, but Craig has "assured us that it was a mistake and that it would be corrected."
The companies are, however, still waiting to see the corrected language of the executive order, he added.
"We are in support of a public safety division and a director of public safety," Hinch said. "As long as that wording is changed to put the operational stuff in the control of the chief officers from each of the companies, nobody is opposed to what he's wanting to do."
Hinch hopes these changes the fire service has requested are part of the discussion with the county council next week.
The fire and EMS association, however, has "different opinions on different aspects on what Mr. Craig is asking for," he said.
One of those aspects, Hinch explained: "The association has always been the contact with the county government for fire and EMS and now with a public safety director and department there is some speculation that the volunteer services are going to be pushed to the side or we will start losing volunteers in Harford County, and that is not what David Craig nor what many of the county council members want done."
The new department, he believes, will provide accountability for what the county gives to the volunteer companies and bring them all together as one group rather than 12 individual companies.
"It gives us more of a voice," Hinch said, "one powerful group that will be able to speak for everybody."
Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company Chief Eddie Hopkins said his company has known "since the study was released that this was the direction County Executive Craig was going to go."
The company supports the creation of the public safety department, he continued, and feels it will be beneficial in the long run.
Hopkins acknowledged the concerns many members have about the wording of the executive order, saying when taken at face value the wording can be "a little vague."
"As a fire chief and given whoever this person may be to fill this role [of director]," he said, "they may or may not know how my company responds to fire calls and members."
If the director came onto the scene of a fire or EMS call and attempted to take control of the situation, Hopkins said, it could quickly turn into a "dysfunctional scene."
Any ambiguities in the executive order will be addressed during the county council meeting next week, he said.
The bottom line of the executive order is to "bring adequate public safety services to the county," Hopkins explained. "If you do that as a coordinated effort your service is far more effective."
More talks needed
Like Hopkins, Dousa, the fire and EMS association president, said the command and control issue is the major sticking point with the executive order.
He also said that while Craig has met with many individual chiefs and some fire company presidents, "there hasn't been a meeting with everybody – trustees and [fire company] administrations."
Nothing had been set up as of late Thursday afternoon, but Dousa said he hopes they can meet before Tuesday's county council meeting.
"I think this will all work out," he said. "This [the department] can be positive for our fire service if we make it work right."
Aegis Managing Editor Allan Vought contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun