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Commentary: Gambling on a Harford department of public safety - no sure bet

Safety of CitizensTony Bennett

The next nine weeks or so could see a watershed moment in Harford County history with regard to fire and emergency medical services provided to homes and businesses.

Harford County Executive David Craig is asking the Harford County Council to authorize creation a new department of public safety which will have considerable authority over 12 private, independent volunteer fire and ambulance companies.

What degree of control the county will ultimately assume over what are essentially a dozen private clubs is a matter of debate. The way the executive order setting up the department of public safety went over to the county council two weeks ago, the director of the new agency would have received almost absolute control over every aspect of the fire service.

When the contents of the executive order became public, many fire company chiefs and presidents immediately ran up the red flag, because one section of the order states the director "shall be responsible for the coordination, command and oversight of the fire and emergency service operations, services and other support organizations…"

That wording was an unfortunate mistake, according to the executive's people, who say that wasn't Craig's intent and attribute the misstep to overzealous drafting by the legal department. Changes in the wording have been promised before the order goes "live."

Although the document went to the council on Nov. 8, Council President Billy Boniface has declined to introduce it until the Dec. 4 council meeting, so the 60-day running period for the council to act apparently won't start until then. In the meantime, the order is being amended or redrafted - or take your pick - to specify that command and control at fire scenes will remain the prerogative of the fire company chiefs.

None of this back and forth is new. One government insider says authority for the county executive to control fire, ambulance, emergency dispatching and hazmat services dates back more than 20 years, when the council enthusiastically placed all of them under the control the director of administration, where they remain today. (The director of administration answers to the county executive.) Then, as now, one of the main issues was accountability for the millions of dollars annually that the county government gives the private fire companies to spend for equipment and other expenses.

While Craig may be taking this control to another level, he's certainly not been shy or secretive about his intentions.

Under Craig, there's already been a committee established that studied modernizing the operation of the fire service with the aid of consultant. That led to Craig's creation of a Public Safety Commission that is essentially the vehicle for changes, a move that didn't sit well with the county council. In addition, Craig has already clamped down on the fire companies financial oversight by successfully ordering that they submit complete financial audits to the county in exchange for continued financial support.

There are many people in and outside the government who think an all-volunteer service is a relic of the 1960s, maybe the 1970s at best. Difficulties with getting enough qualified and available volunteer emergency medical technicians previously led the county to work with the fire companies to create a hybrid paid ambulance service that handles some of the emergency calls and receives some direct financial support from the county. That arrangement, which is still under control of the private companies, has, however, produced far less than ideal results, and many inside and outside the fire service say that at very least, all EMS operations need to be under control of the county.

But with more county control, whatever the level, will also come more cost. For years, many people active in the Harford fire service have raised the specter of millions of dollars in costs and higher taxes in arguing to stay independent. Of course, that also hasn't stopped them from taking public money when it's been available. Last year, the biggest holdout against Craig's increased fiscal controls was the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, the county's largest and arguably its wealthiest. Just days after Craig sent his executive order to the council, he helped BAVFC dedicate its new Patterson Mill Station, the first fire station ever completely bought and paid for by the county taxpayers.

To me, the question of increased government control over a heretofore privately controlled volunteer service comes down to this: Are you willing to pay higher taxes in some form in exchange for a promised improvement in service - a vital service in this case - with no guarantee there will actually be improvements. It's OK if you like to gamble, I suppose, but we are also talking about lives and property hanging in the balance.

Having never been a volunteer firefighter - or a volunteer for much of anything else - I'm not going to be too quick to criticize the incumbent program, especially when the two times we've needed the fire company at our house, it's been there fast, including once in the middle of a blizzard.

Less certain, I think, are the odds of giving more power to the county. Tony Bennett, who is head of Craig's Public Safety Commission and a 46-year veteran of the volunteer fire service with the Aberdeen Fire Department, recently told my colleague Marissa Gallo that the fire service already "sort of reports to the county through various entities" and notes: "A recommendation was made to give the fire service a seat at the executive's table at the county level....because we weren't represented at the executive's table, even Craig felt it was important that we be there."

Another reason to create the department, Bennett said, is to ideally better prepare for having some paid services on both the EMS and the fire side, an issue he said will have to be addressed eventually.

"We're trying to look down the road and [ask] what is the county going to need some time down the road," he said. "It just keeps growing as far as time commitment and when you're 100 percent volunteer, it becomes difficult," he said.

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."

I'm not saying people like the county executive and fire vets like Bennett don't make a persuasive argument, but maybe not one strong enough yet to remove this recurring vision I have of a bumper sticker that reads: House on fire? Call D.R. Craig!

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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