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Harford plans quicker weather emergency warnings via cell phone

Harford County residents could soon get messages about weather emergencies on their cell phones, emergency operations manager Rick Ayers told local government officials at a quarterly meeting Thursday.

Ayers said the new service, which will be available "shortly" for anyone with an up-to-date cell phone, will also be a new tool for the county Emergency Operations Center.

"What that's going to do for me is when we send out a message - 'there's a tornado watch in the county' - now you're going to get on your cell phone the [message], 'Hey, it's here; you need to do something,'" Ayers told the group of about 20 local government officials gathered for a quarterly meeting at the Bel Air Reckord Armory Thursday evening.

Besides the five Bel Air town commissioners, who hosted the meeting, those attending included new Havre de Grace councilmen David Glenn and Joe Smith, Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett, Aberdeen City Councilwoman Ruth Ann Young, Harford County Council President Billy Boniface's legislative aide Andrew Tress and county councilmen Jim McMahan and Dick Slutzky.

Scheduled months in advance, the meeting went on even though it coincided with the second of two viewings for Boniface's son, Benjamin Boniface, who died in a motor vehicle accident on the family's farm early Monday.

Ayers said the new system would only notify residents of serious weather emergencies, such as hurricanes, tornadoes or flash floods. He said it would automatically be available on cell phones with certain providers and residents would not have to sign up for it.

He talked about the June 1 tornado that touched down in Fallston and said his department continues to work on improving emergency preparedness and response.

Over the past few years, he said, "I think we've made a lot of strides, getting our citizens better prepared."

The EOC, however, also hopes to start sending its staff to the scene more to help during major incidents, Ayers said.

"Going out to the scene in Harford County is still a new concept," he said.

Ayers said the storm that produced the tornado left 2,600 people without power on a Friday night, with all power restored by the end of Saturday, "which I heard was great."

For several years, Harford has used an Alert-now recorded message service to notify residents about emergencies through the county government and Ayers' agency. That system was made available automatically to all landline phones in the county, but cell phone users had to sign up for it, and today the majority of the phones are cell phones.

There also have been instances in the past when the current system has been criticized for not being fast enough to get the word out on fast moving weather incidents like tornadoes and flash floods.

Traffic safety

Shrodes talked briefly about his new traffic safety task force, noting he is "hoping that a year after those solutions are out there we will start winning this battle."

The 20-member group will include two residents whose families have suffered personal tragedies from highway deaths: Tina Greer, whose child was killed as a pedestrian, and Russell Hurd, whose daughter was killed by a truck driver texting in Florida.

Shrodes said he also plans to find a Youth Commission member and a representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Harford recorded 15 traffic fatalities through the end of May, compared with 23 in all of 2011, a rate that alarmed local and state police and prompted calls for stepped up enforcement of speeding and distracted driving enforcement.

No highway fatalities have been reported in the county through the first three weeks of June. At this juncture, the county sheriff's office is not classifying the Benjamin Boniface death as a traffic fatality because it occurred on private property.

Fire commission

County government spokesman Bob Thomas talked about the fire and emergency medical service study, which became highly contested earlier this year after Harford County Executive David Craig tried to implement one of the suggestions from the $90,000 study: A permanent fire and EMS commission.

After the county council rejected legislation Craig submitted to create the commission, Craig countered by creating one anyway via executive order. The two sides continue to be at odds on the issue.

Having dealt with a similar debate in Prince George's County in the 1970s, Thomas, a retired deputy state fire marshal, said he was not overly surprised by the controversy over a fire commission.

"What I thought would occur pretty well occurred, and even the [commission] consultant, Les Adams, said he realized there would be contention. He didn't realize there would be so much polarization," he said, noting each contingent - fire chiefs, EMS officials and so on - all wanted different things.

"It's been a big challenge," he said.

Thomas explained the county is not trying to get rid of the volunteer fire service but is concerned about the high turnover of volunteers.

"This is not an attempt to replace the volunteer fire service with career [firefighters]," Thomas said. "There is absolutely no jurisdiction in the state of Maryland that has career personnel that has done away with volunteers. The closest that has come is Howard County, and look at Howard County. It's an urban, urban setting. They're down to the low 400 volunteers."

"One of the things County Executive Craig is not going to do [is], it's not an open checkbook," Thomas continued. "He's not writing checks, and we're up to over $10 million in support between the fire association and the EMS association." The $10 million he referred to is what the county contributes to the privately run fire companies from its current operating budget.

"There's accountability and standards that he's [Craig] put into place regarding that," Thomas said. "We do have some challenges; we're working through those challenges."

BRAC and the future

Harford Economic Development Director Jim Richardson reported on BRAC, sounding concerned about the state government's continued investment in the process.

He said the ratio of government contractors who have come to Harford County, as a result of base realignment benefiting Aberdeen Proving Ground, is lower than originally expected.

"When we were originally looking at the BRAC, we knew that was going to be between 1 to 1 [and] 3 to 1," he said. "What we're seeing right now is we're right about that 1 to 1 relationship."

Significant companies, however, have continued to move into the area, Richardson said.

He cited Bizerba, a manufacturer of food industry equipment, and Nisbets, a British catering company that have made Harford County their North American headquarters.

He also said economic development hopes to continue marketing Ripken sports and Cal Ripken's connection to the county.

"You can't buy that type of marketing. That's worth gold, so we're really concentrating on that," he said.

Despite the new Water's Edge conference center in Belcamp, Richardson said there will still ultimately be a need for a county-owned conference center in Harford.

About Water's Edge, he said: "I think for the short term, it is probably good enough."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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