David Craig

During the a briefing before Tuesday's Harford County Council meeting, Harford County Executive David Craig, right, and Rusty Eyre listen as council members ask some questions about Craig's executive order creating a Department of Emergency Services. (PHOTO BY MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / January 7, 2013)

Harford County Executive David Craig presented his order creating a Department of Emergency Services to the County Council Tuesday, calling it the first step in "the proper direction."

Council members had a handful of question but no real opposition. Council President Billy Boniface said the order did not require any council action unless the council chose to deny it.

"At this time, I don't see that being an issue," he said.

No mention of the order, which will go into effect Feb. 17 if no action is taken, was not mentioned during the council's regular meeting that followed the briefing.

Craig said the department is about collaboration, not control of the fire and emergency agencies.

"The evolution of the department is really not about bigger government, it's about better government," he said.

"We definitely need a trained professional person sitting on the cabinet level when we have cabinet meetings and we don't have that right now," Craig told the council.

He said all other groups have department heads and Harford is the only county in the state to not have such a department to oversee emergency situations.

Craig explained the creation of a department was the most important suggestion that came out of the recent fire and emergency service study several years ago.

"Public safety is one of the most important things we do on the local government side," Craig said. "People expect it and they deserve it."

Rusty Eyre and Steve Gamatoria represented the fire and EMS commission, and Eyre told the council the fire leaders have been promised all parties will work together.

Gamatoria said they have been assured by Craig that the goal is to help "and not to diminish our role."

Councilman Jim McMahan said he is "totally on board" with Craig's plan but is "concerned how the general public has received all the recent publicity about the fire and EMS service."

He was worried about its impact on the volunteer fire service, saying the order is of "such great importance that it could be the best move to provide a bright and affordable future for our citizens or it could actually be the beginning of a disaster, that being the destruction of volunteer fire service in Harford County."

"We need to do everything in our political power to protect the volunteer system in Harford County," McMahan said.

He asked if the fire and ambulance budget would be determined based solely on the need of the company instead of the company's balance sheet and whether the administration intends to leave the current billing practices in place for each company.

Craig replied that each company will still have its own billing practice.

Councilman Joe Woods asked who would have direct oversight of the volunteer fire service and Craig replied he imagines the Fire & EMS Association would.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti asked if the head of the new department would be required to live in the county.

Craig replied it would be a 24-hour job and that the new director will live in Harford.

"One thing we found with the last chief of the [emergency operations] division, who lived in Pennsylvania, if we had a hurricane or tornado and they couldn't make it here, it's not good," he said. "It's a 24-hour-a-day job, so having them far away is not a good thing."

Craig said most department heads are not required to live here, although he and administration director Mary Chance do.

"I just think this is a critical issue that they have to live as close as possible," he said.