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Commission discusses future organization of Harford's EMS and fire services

Panel members also told county executive has accepted new fire officers training standards

BY HAFIZ RASHID, Special to The Aegis

1:46 PM EDT, July 2, 2013

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About 25 representatives from Harford County's various fire and EMS companies discussed Thursday how they might reorganize those services in the future with regard to the financial and legal responsibilities of the services.

The discussion took place at the monthly meeting of the Harford County Public Safety Commission held at the Department of Emergency Services headquarters in Bel Air, during which it was also reported that County Executive David Craig has accepted the commission's recommendation for new countywide training standards for fire line officers at the rank of lieutenant and higher.

Commission members discussed with those gathered possible ways to structure and organize the dozen private companies that provide the bulk of the firefighting and emergency medical transport in the county. There is also an autonomous Fire and EMS Foundation with a paid staff that was formed by the private companies to provide and manage additional EMS transport mainly in more populated areas of the county where there is a higher volume of emergency medical calls.

One of the issues the commission and the companies continue to debate is the amount of money the county government provides the fire companies, and the Fire & EMS Foundation, and how those funds are spent.

Commission Chairman Tony Bennett called the current set-up for funding "very disjointed."

"If you don't know what you're spending, how do you know what to do?" Bennett said rhetorically. "This is not going to affect us for a year or two, but if we don't start as [fire and EMS services] now to start collecting this information, we're never going to know what we truly need to run [the services]."

Bennett said detailed budget information has been requested by the county; however, much of the disbursement of the county's annual subsidy to the fire companies – almost $6.8 million in the 2014 fiscal year beginning July 1 – is divided up among the companies themselves.

In the past 18 months, Craig demanded that the companies provide the county with annual audits of their finances, as a condition for continued county funding. Some were reluctant to go along, though the underlying concern, many leaders said privately, was that the county was moving toward a full takeover of the fire service. Those concerns flared last fall when Craig proposed establishing a cabinet level department head position to oversee emergency services in the county. After the proposal was toned down in the face of fire company opposition, the new Department of Emergency Services began operating last winter.

Legal responsibilities

In addition to funding, another issue is to determine how legal responsibility for the fire and EMS services in the county should be managed.

Bennett said Russell Strickland, the director of the Department of Emergency Services, would be addressing the issue.

Strickland, who is a member of the public safety commission but was not present at Thursday's meeting, has assigned a summer intern in his department to look at how similar-sized counties in Maryland and other states addressed the issue of who would legally be responsible for emergency services. This would help the county determine how to set up a legal framework, Bennett said.

The intern will compile and present the information to a task force comprised of the chair of the local branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the chair of the fire and EMS association's Chief Officers Liaison Committee, Bennett representing the commission, Strickland and the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Foundation's medical director, along with support from Harford County's legal staff, Bennett said.

From there, the task force would work with people from the county's municipal governments to develop legislation to codify the legal responsibility, which would later be presented to the county administration. The administration would then present the legislation to the county council for action, Bennett said.

Dispatching consistency

Commission members Edward Hopkins and Dr. Timothy Chizmar were assigned Thursday to address the issue of ensuring that closest emergency service will be the one dispatched to respond to a particular emergency.

Hopkins is chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company and Chizmar, an emergency medicine specialist, is associate medical director for the Fire and EMS Association and for the Volunteer Fire & EMS Foundation.

Hopkins and Chizmar will be joined by Susquehanna Hose Company Chief Scott Hurst and other representatives from the Fire & EMS Association who have yet to be named, Bennett said.

Officer training standards

Bennett announced that Craig will officially accept the new officer training standards this Monday, July 1.

The committee had recommended specific standards to Craig in April and also gave him supporting documentation. Part of the recommendation is the minimum emergency medical training a fire service member will have to complete to become a chief officer.

Bennett said that implementation processes for the new standards would need to be put in place and that the commission would be reaching out to the association, as well as Chief Officers Liaison Committee, for assistance. He added that there would be a 90-day process to "figure out how to implement [the standards.]"

In April, when the commission approved the standards, Bennett hailed the action, pointing out that it was the first time the fire service will have a uniform set of standards for its chief officers, rather than letting each fire company determine its own.

CPR/AED training update

Following up on last month's meeting, commission member Judy Hinch reported on her efforts to promote education in the county on CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) training.

Hinch said other counties are already conducting such training for the public and said she would like each fire company to provide its own training sessions for the public in the fall at the company's discretion.

At the close of the meeting, Bennett asked commission members to come to the next meeting in July with a list of their top four priority items from the 2011 Harford County Fire and EMS Services Master Plan. At their meeting in April, commission members had also been requested to do the same thing.

The commission will meet next at the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company's main station on Hickory Avenue on July 25 at 4 p.m.