Support grows from within for new Harford fire agency

Some members of the Harford County Public Safety Commission say they are cautiously optimistic about greater acceptance of County Executive David Craig's plan to give the county more oversight of the privately-run fire and emergency medical services system.

During the commission's monthly meeting held Thursday afternoon in Bel Air, Eddie Hopkins, chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, was most prominent in saying he feels better about the proposal for a "split system" of joint county and private fire service oversight, following a recent meeting with some county representatives regarding fleet purchases.

Hopkins told the commission members he "obviously" shared others' concerns at first that Craig's planned emergency services department amounted to a "county takeover," but said he felt more reassured after the meeting.

In addition to issuing an executive order creating the new county department of emergency services, Craig has imposed a moratorium on the fire companies using money from their annual county appropriations to purchase new equipment. The 12 fire and ambulance companies receive about $11.4 million annually from the county, much of it used to purchase and maintain their equipment.

Craig's spokesman, Bob Thomas, said last week the hold was placed on fleet purchases until some base standards and needs assessments are developed because, historically, the individual companies have made their own equipment purchasing decisions, rather than working as a group in making such decisions.

Hopkins said there was a lot of "misperception" that the county would just come in and not give volunteer run fire companies a say in how the county fire service runs in the future. But, he now believes the county can understand even something as complex as purchasing equipment.

"I was quite impressed at what they knew, very surprised at what they didn't know and I thought they knew, very impressed that they were willing to understand what we were going through and in the process," he said.

Hopkins said he went into the meeting "very apprehensive" because he thought he would have to fight to be understood, but "that was clearly not the issue."

"The initial onset was promising," he added.

The county's private fire and EMS association voted unanimously last week to support the latest draft of the executive order creating the emergency services department. Hopkins is a member of the association's board.

Executive Order 12-8 is expected to be presented during the Jan. 8 county council meeting.

Public safety commission member Steve Gamatoria, of the Susquehanna Hose Company, also sounded confident, in response to questions from Charlie Packard, the company's president, who was in the audience at Thursday's commission meeting.

Packard wondered if there has been a conversation with the county executive about the split system, among other issues.

"No one knew there was an executive order coming down the line, even though everyone in the world should have known about it," Packard said.

Gamatoria said the only issue that has gone to the county executive is the moratorium on fleet purchasing.

Packard said he thinks there is "just miscommunication in a lot of instances" and said there was recently a discussion about the moratorium and baseline fleet standards, noting "the proposal that there might be financial support from the county on new purchases."

Thomas, who was present at Thursday's meeting, said on behalf of the county administration that when the commission started, the belief was that a recommendation would not come to the county executive or the administration unless the full commission voted on it.

Thomas said a quarterly report from the commission or minutes from the commission will clearly show "action items" taken and recommendations made.

"Other recommendations will be published items, so it is a transparent process," he said.

Tony Bennett, head of the commission, acknowledged the administration is working with the fire and EMS association and pointed out the latter's unanimous vote to support Craig's new department.

"I can tell you the association is quite pleased with that," he said about the executive order, adding that all commission members and guests are invited to the short presentation before the county council in January.

"I know the county would like the support of the fire service," Bennett said.

Tony Coliano, president of Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, who was also in the audience, agreed about the positive nature of the meeting about fleet purchases.

"It was a somewhat pleasant experience, the right questions were asked," Coliano said. "I had no problem with the process whatsoever."

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.

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