It's a sign of just how far Harford County has advanced in emergency planning and response that more than 200 people could fit in the nerve center for the dedication of the county's new $50 million Emergency Operations Center north of Bel Air Saturday afternoon.
Many of the speakers and those in the throng seated and standing along the walls of the main emergency response room recalled working in rooms no smaller than one of the new center's break rooms and, in the pre-911 days, listening for calls on Bearcat scanners and answering one of the two emergency telephone lines for the entire county.
And, as several of them wryly noted, they won't have to sleep on the floor during a prolonged crisis like a snowstorm, or worry about evacuating, as County Executive David Craig noted almost happened at the 50-year-old EOC building next door during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
Although he shared the rostrum with a number of dignitaries, including Aberdeen Proving Ground's Maj. Gen. Bruce Crawford. Circuit Judge Yolanda Curtin, who gave the keynote address, and his successor, Sen. Barry Glassman, Saturday's ceremony put an exclamation point on Craig's nine and a half year old administration that will end Dec. 1, when he turns the reins of county government over to Glassman, who was elected Tuesday to succeed him.
Craig's administration conceived, funded, executed and built the project, and he and many others who spoke lauded the partnerships formed among the county government, county council, volunteer fire and EMS service, municipal and state governments and local police agencies.
"There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction," Craig said, quoting John F. Kennedy, who noted there was considerable risk involved in continuing to act in the old building.
Historically, he explained, "public safety often gets put on the back burner" by government officials, "but it is very important to the people who live here." Then, referring to the partnerships formed to execute the project, he recalled the words of Henry Ford: "If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself."
Craig presented proclamations to Emergency Services Director Russell Strickland, Emergency Manager Rick Ayers and Special Operations Manager Mike Brunicke and later in the program, Strickland presented Director of Administration Mary Chance with a bouquet of flowers for her efforts, one of several times Chance was referred to as the project's "guardian angel."
Council President Billy Boniface, a volunteer fireman in his pre-council days, said the council had reservations about trying to undertake such an expensive project during a downturn in the economy, but likewise noted "a core responsibility of local government is providing public safety service."
"In 20 years [the life of bonds sold to build the project] I hope this pays dividends and I believe it will," he added.
Glassman spoke about how he started on his journey in public service, working in the kitchen at the Level Fire Hall in the community where he grew up and later was president of the Level Volunteer Fire Company. He said when police, fire and EMS men and women respond to a call their support "is the most important job of local government."
He lauded the county government for moving forward with the EOC project, which he noted combines "cutting edge technology with our and our own heritage...to move forward."
In his remarks, Crawford talked about the human equation in the emergency response system. Soldiers and civilian first responders are "the most trusted profession," he said, "and what a great thing it is to serve along side these great first responders in this community."
Curtin note that the local emergency response system is often "an unseen safety net – we only see it when we or someone we love is in need of help."
Like Crawford, Curtin said the dedication of the police, fire, EMS and their support personnel, such as the 911 operators, are the system's backbone, "but what a great thing to have the best technical tools available...and to know in an emergency we will be protected."
Prior to gathering in the new building's main operations center, officials and visitors gathered in front of the building for the presentation of the colors and dedication of a memorial to the county's police, fire and EMS personnel who died in the line of duty. A single bell sounded as Col. Edward Hopkins of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, a 40-year-volunteer fireman, read each of the 13 names, including his father's.
Everyone who toured the two-story, 110,000 square foot building following the ceremony seemed to agree that it will place Harford in the forefront of emergency operations as it is occupied over the next few weeks and months.
Off the main situation room that is twice the size of the one it is replacing there is a rumor control center that can be activated in an emergency to receive calls from concerned citizens and to monitor social media, Emergency Planning Manager Linda Ploener explained. The main room is ringed by large screen television monitors.
The building also has a large training room, a police, fire and EMS radio room that takes up much of the second floor and offices for both the Fire and EMS Association and the Harford EMS Foundation which operates the county's paid ambulance service. Officials noted this will be the first time both county emergency operations and the volunteer service leadership will be under the same roof.
Bob Thomas, emergency services spokesman, who organized Saturday's ceremony, said operations staff should move into the building over the next few weeks.
The transfer of all 911 call taking and police, fire and EMS dispatching services from the old building to the new will be completed in mid-February, Randy Cunningham, public safety supervisor, said.