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Editorial: Executive order on fire and ambulance service poorly worded, but necessary

In the latest back and forth over the degree to which Harford County government will have a measure of authority over the local volunteer fire and ambulance service, a good deal has been made over the words "coordination, command, control and the oversight."

Such is the wording of an executive order issued earlier this month under which the county government would gain oversight responsibility for what to date have been essentially a conglomeration of a dozen private clubs that provide a vital public service.

The words "coordination," "command" and "control" were especially jarring to the dedicated and well-trained members of the volunteer fire and ambulance companies because when they arrive on the scene of an emergency, their primary responsibility is to take command of the situation, establish order and coordinate efforts to control the emergency situation, be it a fire, accident scene or medical incident.

The executive order is slated to come before the Harford County Council Tuesday night for review. The council has the authority to block executive orders, otherwise they become codified and have the force of law. When it does, it is likely there will be a lot of heated discussion over the wording of the executive order, which really should be changed so as to make it clear emergency personnel will be in charge on the scene of emergency situations, while the county's command and control, so to speak, will be confined to financial and broad policy issues.

Through all this, it is vital to keep in mind that, though Harford County has been well served over the years by the volunteer fire and ambulance companies, members of which are trained at the same level or better as paid emergency personnel in other parts of state, in the past 20 years the ability of the strictly volunteer service to keep up with the demand for ambulance service just hasn't been there.

The volunteer organizations acknowledged the shortcomings themselves and instituted a convoluted half-paid operation to deal with the ever increasing number of ambulance calls. It worked as a stopgap, but has many weaknesses, not the least of which is that it has become a substantial financial burden.

The county government has put up money to help pay for the service, but had been largely rebuffed when it sought to find out what it was getting for the taxpayer money it was putting up.

This, by the way, is only the latest of the expenses taken on by the county in support of the volunteer fire and ambulance service. The county puts up a substantial sum each year to buy and maintain fire equipment, and has paid part or all of the costs of building and rebuilding firehouses for the private fire companies in recent years.

Then there's the big expense the county covers of staffing and maintaining the 911 dispatch center, which coordinates fire and ambulance calls and ensures emergency equipment is dispatched promptly to the scenes of emergencies.

In all, the county provides millions of dollars each year in support of the volunteer fire and ambulance service, directly and indirectly, yet the county's ability to find out how the direct support is being used is very limited, as is the county's ability to have input on key issues such as where new firehouses should be built.

Traditionally, the fiercely independent fire companies have resisted any outside oversight, and members of the county council have tended to support them in avoiding scrutiny. This is an abdication considering the amount of money going into the fire and ambulance service.

When it comes to emergency services, the command and control of emergency situations does need to be left to the professionally trained members of the local volunteer service (or its paid ambulance service providers), but a measure of financial command and control is needed on the part of the county government, if it is to be a worthy steward of the taxpayer money that goes into the fire and ambulance service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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