Thomas, the county spokesman, said it is possible the latest order could undergo more changes before it is finally introduced by the county council on the 18th.

More concerns emerge

That comment was seconded by Bel Air Fire Company Chief Eddie Hopkins, who said Tuesday he believes another draft is likely before the order formally goes to the county council.

Speaking during a Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners work session, Hopkins, who is also the chairman of the town board, said the fire service does not oppose having a department, but some leaders still have reservations about the way the latest order is written.

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Specifically, he said, there is concern with the use of the term "oversight" in Section D of the order without any written elaboration, especially because Craig's tenure as county executive is due to end in two years and the next county executive could have a different interpretation of the relationship between the county and the fire service.

"We need [for the order] to be effective," Hopkins said, noting that some fire service leaders believe Section D is too vague.

He also noted that while the new department will also run emergency dispatching, hazmat and disaster response, the fire service "has the biggest dog in the fight."

Hopkins likewise said the county executive changed the name of the department from public safety to emergency services because the sheriff and town police agencies were concerned the first name was a gateway to giving the county direct control over them.

Despite all the reservations about the order, Hopkins said he expects it to pass and the county will have a cabinet level department in charge of fire, emergency medical services and the 9-1-1 Center.

Two-year process

For more than two years, Craig has sought to bring more county financial and operational oversight to the 12 independent fire and ambulance companies in the county.

Though they are private organizations, the fire companies receive about $12 million yearly in direct county funding toward their operational and equipment expenses, as well as periodic county financial support for improvements to their facilities.

Just last month, the county turned over a new fire station in the Bel Air South area to the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company that was built entirely with county funds on property that was owned by the county, since deeded to the fire company.

Though Craig has succeeded in requiring the fire companies to turn over annual audits of their finances to the county, he butted heads with the fire and EMS association last spring when he tried to create a permanent county Public Safety Commission. The county council sided with the fire companies and refused to pass legislation creating the panel; however, Craig used an executive order to form it instead, and the council did not defeat the order.

The underlying issue behind the financial oversight, creation of a public safety commission and now the creation of an emergency services department, is the feeling by Craig and some veteran members of the fire service that Harford, because of its population growth, can no longer strictly rely on an all-volunteer fire service.

The county, whose population is about 245,000, is the largest in Maryland without a paid fire department. The county does contribute some funding to a privately run, hybrid nonprofit emergency ambulance service with paid drivers and emergency medical technicians that was set up to back up the volunteer services. The paid ambulance service ran into financial difficulties last fiscal year and had to be bailed out with a $400,000 county emergency appropriation approved by Craig and the county council in April.