Harford County public safety officials, working with the county's volunteer fire and ambulance companies, implemented a "closest unit" strategy for ambulance dispatching earlier this week.

The move could result in people seeing ambulances from neighboring jurisdictions in their communities if the crews happen to be close by, because the goal is to shorten the time between when people call 911 and when an emergency crew arrives.

The adoption of the new policy is a major shift to way things have been done in the county's fire and ambulance service and the culmination of several years of debate about how best to provide faster responses to medical emergencies.

Historically what was once an all-volunteer fire and ambulance service has been organized into "fire boxes" that defined the geographic response territories of the fire and ambulance companies. Each box is assigned a first responder, the company and its equipment that is first alerted to respond to an emergency.

The fire box system has continued even though, with fewer people volunteering to serve as emergency medical personnel because of the training and time demands, some fire companies have a chronic shortage of personnel to staff their ambulances.

To address that issue amid a growing volume of emergency medical calls, a hybrid paid ambulance service was put into service a few years ago, operated by a foundation spun off from the Harford Fire & EMS Association with financial support from the county government. The fire and EMS association is an umbrella organization of the independent volunteer fire companies, which are private organizations.

County officials and many leaders in the fire service have conceded, however, that the paid ambulance service hasn't solved the response time problem.

How it works

Under the new "closest unit" policy, the staffed ambulance that is closest to where a call for service originates would be assigned as the first responder, regardless of its designated territory or fire box.

To give an example, Rich Gardiner, spokesman for the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association, said if there were an emergency medical situation at Harford Mall in Bel Air, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company would be alerted, but if a dispatcher sees that an ambulance from the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company is leaving Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, which is near the mall, the Abingdon crew would be assigned to the call.

Gardiner also explained how Bel Air units headquartered in the company's Forest Hill station could be assigned to calls that the station is close to in the neighboring Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company's territory.

"The intent is to get the quickest service to the people in the fastest amount of time possible," Gardiner said Thursday.

He noted ambulances are equipped with automatic vehicle locater devices, referred to as AVLs, and dispatchers can use these AVLs to pinpoint an ambulance's location. They can also use traditional radio communication to determine what unit is closest.

Chiefs support

Members of the Harford County Chief Officers Liaison Committee, or COLC, which is made up of fire company chiefs, endorsed the "closest unit" policy in December. Gardiner noted the vote among the chiefs' organization members was unanimous.

The policy was implemented at the beginning of this week, a few companies at a time.

"As of 10:30 this morning, all companies are now in conformance with the proposal from COLC," Robert Thomas, spokesman for the county's Department of Emergency Services, said Thursday via email.

"Right now they're trying to iron out a bunch of bumps," Gardiner said, stressing the program is new and is bound to have some wrinkles.

Andy Doyle, spokesman for the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company, said his company regularly uses a "closest unit" method within its territory.

"We have certain parts of our district that other companies are closer [to] than our stations and we've embraced that," he said Thursday.