Harford County's newly minted Department of Emergency Services could be facing the first test of its authority over local volunteer fire companies in the next few weeks.
The issue is the level of medical training that will be required in the future of fire service line officers at the rank of lieutenant and above, part of an overall set of officer's training standards the commission adopted during its most recent monthly meeting Feb. 21 at the Level Volunteer Fire Company.
The minimum medical training standard approved is a protocol developed by the American Heart Association called HeartSaver, which includes basic CPR and automatic electronic defibrillator use, according to Tony Bennett, the commission's chairman.
Bennett confirmed some members wanted an emergency medical responder protocol set by the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services Systems, or MIEMSS, and the AHA standard passed by a single vote, with eight members voting and one abstaining. As chairman, he does not vote, Bennett added.
"It was discussed extensively," he said.
Bennett said most fire service employees have HeartSaver training or the equivalent and many have taken training beyond that level. He said the standard approved by the commission requires 15 to 20 hours of training, while the MIEMMS is "roughly 50 hours," with more periodic refresher courses required than HeartSaver.
Aside from that, he said, the chief difference is there is more first aid training required under the MIEMMS standard, though neither raises to the level of an emergency medical technician or a paramedic.
Bennett said the commission has been working for more than a year to develop a countywide training standard for all aspects of being a fire line officer, something Harford has never implemented, having previously left such decisions up to each its 11 independent, privately run fire and ambulance companies.
He also noted that both the liaison committee that represents chief officers and the Harford County Fire & EMS Association, which represents the individual fire companies, previously voted to support HeartSaver.
"We're trying to build a system to allow an individual to be very good at medical or at [fire] suppression and not have to meet an onerous training requirement throughout the system," Bennett explained, noting that younger volunteers in particular tend to gravitate to either firefighting or providing medical aid because of time constraints of both with regard to their personal lives.
Bennett said individual fire companies can still require their officers to attain a higher level of medical response training. He added, however, there was concern that having too high a minimum training standard might discourage some younger volunteers from aspiring to become fire officers.
"Within the emergency services field, we strive to be the very best on the medical end and to be the very best on the suppression end," Bennett, a 46-year-member of the Aberdeen Fire Department, added, explaining he believes the recommended standards allow volunteers to pursue either or both levels of training at their choice.
The vote last week is not final, however, because the commission only makes recommendations to Harford County Executive David Craig, who has the final say on what will be adopted. Craig established the commission last year as a step toward birthing a new emergency services department, which went live on Feb. 17, four day's before the commission acted on the new standards.
"Any recommendation from the commission to the County Executive can be rejected or not accepted," Bob Thomas, spokesman for the county, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. "He, the county executive, is not bound to act on any specific recommendation that comes to him from the commission." That decision is not likely to come before April, both Thomas and Bennett said.
Scott Hurst, chief of the Susquehanna Hose Company of Havre de Grace, said Tuesday his company endorses the HeartSaver standard. Hurst, whose company has 19 officers, said every member of the company, regardless of rank, is required to have the basic CPR and AED training the commission is recommending, as well a first aid course developed by the fire company.
Hurst called the commission's recommended countywide officer training standards "a major step ... we've never had one before."
He also praised the commission for having an open mind, saying: "It's nice to see a process in place."