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.
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.
Doyle said each fire company has traditionally been responsible for "creating the order of dispatch for calls in their territory, and under Chief [Ryan] Barrow our running order has always reflected the closest company."
He said Joppa-Magnolia officials support the new closest unit policy.
Chief Monti Arrington, of the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company, said Thursday he also supports the closest unit policy, and his company even opened a station near Long Bar Harbor Road that had been closed for about a decade in anticipation of the change.
"It's just a matter of taking a system and implementing it and everybody just being patient and allowing it to work," Arrington said.
Arrington noted the station, which is in the 3800 block of Washington Avenue, was also reopened because the State Highway Administration plans to close a segment of Route 7 (Philadelphia Road) between Route 136 (Calvary Road) and Route 543 (Riverside Parkway) between April and June to replace the bridge over James Run.
"That's our normal road of travel to get to that area, which is our 402, 417 and 420 box area," Arrington explained.
Traffic is to be detoured along Abingdon Road, Route 40 and Route 543, the chief said, citing an State Highway Administration bulletin.
The Long Bar Harbor Road fire station allows quick access to Route 40.
"I felt it was time to open it back up so we could provide service to these residents," Arrington said.
The chief stressed he favors the closest unit policy.
"I am pro closest unit," he said. "I'm pro anything when it comes down to the citizens of Harford County, who we're here to protect."
Still some debate
Implementation of the new policy prompted intense debate online Wednesday, following a report that not all fire chiefs were on board.
"This week, Harford County has begun alerting the closest EMS unit for emergency medical calls in certain districts," a report posted by the Harford Fire Blog's Facebook page administrators stated. "The closest unit is determined by each company's chief. Some of the companies are electing not to send the closest unit but rather send their company's unit(s) first."
The Harford Fire Blog is not an official page of the Harford County fire and rescue service, but reports of traffic accidents, fires and major crimes such as shootings and stabbings are posted there each day, as well as major approaching storms and school closings.
The fire blog administrators do not typically take a stance on county issues.
The initial Facebook post elicited 62 comments, some of them heated. Although most were generally supportive of the change, some defended the old territorial system, while others suggested the county still faces manpower issues and problems with those who handle the dispatching at the county government run Emergency Operations Center.
With the shakedown of the new policy under way, members of the county's Public Safety Commission were expecting a real-world version of the same debate during their regular monthly meeting late Thursday afternoon at Joppa-Magnolia's Old Mountain Road South station.
Nothing of the sort materialized, however, because some of the issues among the chiefs about how the policy was to be administered were cleared up by Thursday morning, commission chairman Tony Bennett said.
"Everybody is on the same standardized piece of paper," Bennett said following the meeting, adding: "That's what we wanted, was a countywide common system."
The Harford Fire Blog administrators also posted a follow-up report on their Facebook page around 3 p.m. Thursday.
"It has been brought to our attention by several sources that ALL fire companies have accepted the recommended closest station response originally proposed by the county," the report stated. "Thank you to all of our followers and loyal readers! We will continue, as always to bring you breaking news as it presents itself."
As of Friday morning the post had received just two comments, both positive.