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Fire officials scramble after Harford executive issues order to create new public safety agency

FiresSafety of CitizensFitnessTony Bennett

The clock started ticking last week on the planned creation a department of public safety that would put Harford County's traditionally independent, volunteer fire and emergency medical services companies firmly under the jurisdiction of the county government.

Harford County Executive David Craig has signed an executive order creating the department, which was received by the Harford County Council prior to its legislative session on Nov. 12.

By law, the order takes effect 60 days following its receipt by the council; however, the council has the option of rejecting the order outright or making changes, to which Craig would have to agree. The order is expected to be discussed at the council's Dec. 4 legislative session.

Council President Billy Boniface said last week he wants a briefing on the executive order and he wants it to be made publicly Dec. 4.

"Mind you, the council has due diligence to look at these executive orders," he said. "If we do not take action to deny it within 60 days, then it becomes codified in law."

"Since this is a change of directions, not a confrontational one, let's make sure everyone is aware" of what the executive order entails, Boniface said, adding he would allow for some public comment that night.

Backtracking

When the executive order was issued, it sent officials of Harford's 12 privately operated, independent volunteer fire companies scrambling to dissect its impact, and Craig in turn was forced to some backtracking earlier this week, according to one prominent fire chief. As a result, at least one major change to what Craig proposed is already in the offing both the county and fire officials say.

Though it's been unclear if the fire companies were alerted to the order or received copies of the order before it went to the council on Nov. 8; however, Craig's decision to create a separate department to handle public safety-related activities, particularly as they relate to fire and emergency medical services, should have surprised no one, his chief spokesman said.

"This has been a subject that has been under consideration for months," Bob Thomas, Harford County government spokesman, said late last week. "This is nothing new whatsoever."

Thomas initially said the county's volunteer fire companies and EMS service won't fall under the department from an "operational position," only from an administrative one with the department acting as one umbrella for "coordination purposes."

That's not what the order sent to the council said, however, reading in part: "The Department of Public Safety shall be responsible for the coordination, command, control and the oversight of the fire and emergency services operations..."

When he read that section, he immediately grew concerned, Scott Hurst, chief of the Susquehanna Hose Company of Havre de Grace, said Tuesday. Hurst said he discussed the concerns with Craig and Tony Bennett, who heads a Public Safety Commission that Craig established earlier this year over the objection of the county council. The commission supports creation of the new department, as did a prior blue ribbon committee Craig appointed in 2010-11 to review the fire service and make recommendations for making it more

"The fire chiefs have to have control of fire suppression at the scene," Hurst said he told Craig. "He [Craig] said they will clarify responsibility on the fire line, so that the chiefs are still in fact in charge at the scene of the fire. That has to remain under the authority of each company at their respective fire boxes [territories]."

Hurst, whose company has 135 active firefighters, and who oversees five stations, said he supports the concept of having a county agency oversee budgeting and other administrative functions and policies that affect the fire and EMS service, "as long as we have control" fighting fires.

"I think everyone understands we need some kind of umbrella agency today; it should be for the better," he added.

Hurst said there had been e-mails going back among the fire chiefs and with Craig's people throughout the day Tuesday about the command and control section and other aspects of the order.

"I think the next draft is going to be much better than the first," he said.

Changes coming

Thomas confirmed Tuesday that the command and control section will be substantially altered by an amendment to be submitted to the council before Dec. 4.

"It is not the intent of the new department of public safety to require command and control of the daily operations of the fire service," he said. "The language will be modified."

In addition to fire and EMS services, the new department will exercise control over the operations of the Harford County Emergency Operations Center, currently a sub agency under the office of the director of administration.

The 911 center staff reports to the manager of the division of emergency operations, Thomas said, who will in turn report to the director of the department of public safety.

"Nothing in our fire service is uniform," Thomas said. "We have a county of 250,000 people; this isn't 1974."

Seat at the table

Bennett, the public safety commission chairman, explained Monday that when the earlier study was commissioned by the county executive and fire and EMS association two years ago, it recommended establishing a department to encompass all of the county's emergency services.

The fire service already "sort of reports to the county through various entities," Bennett continued, and the department would ultimately place that responsibility under its designated director. The recommendation was passed on to Craig's office in January.

"A recommendation was made to give the fire service a seat at the executive's table at the county level," Bennett said. "Because we weren't represented at the executive's table, even Craig felt it was important that we be there." Bennett said the county executive was "fully supportive" of the recommendation.

Another reason to create the department, Bennett said, is to ideally help the now all volunteer fire and EMS services in the county to possibly become at least a partially paid service sometime in the future.

"We're trying to look down the road and [ask] what is the county going to need some time down the road," he said.

Bennett has been a member of the Harford volunteer the fire service for 46 years and has witnessed the county growing and changing over the decades.

"It just keeps growing as far as time commitment and when you're 100 percent volunteer, it becomes difficult," he said.

Sooner or later, he continued, the issue will have to be addressed if Harford's fire companies remain entirely volunteer or if they move to some paid, full-time employees.

Different agendas

"I think a lot of it comes down to how different factions view different communication and wording," he said. "There is some resistance to the executive order already, and that is created by the fact that when orders are drafted by people who may not be in the middle of a specific arena they're drafted from their perspective."

Bennett believes part of the resistance comes from the different companies worried that the county will have too much control over what is done and part of it comes from the county council.

He remains confident, however, that everyone would be amenable to working out any wording in the executive order that people have an issue with and coming up with something everyone would be happy with.

In the long run, Bennett said he feels the department of public safety "will allow us to focus the support of the system and build ultimately a better fire service for the citizens."

Aegis staff members Allan Vought and Bryna Zumer contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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