Harford breaks ground on new emergency services building Sunday

Harford County government leaders broke ground Sunday afternoon for a new emergency operations facility designed to serve the county's needs for the next 25 to 30 years and it was noted as a "time of cooperation and support" between the county and the myriad of public and private emergency response organizations that serve Harford

About 100 people, including state and federal representatives and current and former emergency staffers, attended the ceremony held at the site north of Bel Air. The new Emergency Operations Center is being built on the site of the existing center off Route 543 near Route 1.

"Let us truly break the ground for a time of cooperation and support," Russell Strickland, director of the Harford County Department of Emergency Services, said in his welcoming remarks.

The construction site for the new 116,000-square-foot facility served as a backdrop for Sunday's ceremony. Large yellow machines rested on top of dirt that has been turned since preparation of the 17.453-acre site began in March.

The current building, which at 37,800 square feet is about a third of the size of the new facility, has been in use for about 52 years and renovated twice during the past three decades.

The Emergency Operations Center is home to the county's 911 system and much of its police, fire and emergency medical response dispatching. The center is activated in times of emergencies, weather events and disasters to coordinate countywide responses and also has space for the county's Hazmat response team and a radio shop.

Those functions, along with administrative support for emergency providers, will be housed within the new building.

The new building will replace a facility deemed out of date and too small to support law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel who must cover a growing Harford County, which has a population of nearly 250,000.

"We are certainly preparing for the future needs of this great county we call home," Robert Thomas, spokesman for the Department of Emergency Services, said during the ceremony.

The new building, projected to cost $45 million, will be built in two phases, the last of which is expected to be completed in December 2015.

The first phase, which county officials expect to be completed by next fall, includes construction of 66,000 square feet for the EOC, 911 center and offices.

The radio shop and Hazmat team area will take up another 50,000 square feet and be built during the second phase.

Strickland noted the "beginning of a new and exciting time for Harford's emergency services."

The Emergency Services Department, formerly the Division of Emergency Operations, was created via executive order of Harford County Executive David Craig in late 2012, and Strickland was appointed as its first director in February.

"I've been in there during tropical storms and blizzards and all kinds of events," Craig said of the existing EOC.

Emergency Services officials work "closely" with Harford County's 12 "independent" volunteer fire and EMS companies and their "parent organization," the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association, according to a news release provided during Sunday's event. The fire and EMS companies are private organizations that receive some funding directly from the county.

"We move toward an even stronger and positive relationship with the Harford County government," Russell Eyre, the new president of Fire & EMS Association, said. The association will have some administrative space in the new building.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, who also attended, said "a top-flight, state-of-the-art command center" is needed for extreme weather situations, as well as matters of "national security" such as responding to terrorist incidents.

County officials are seeking federal and state grants to cover a portion of the costs for the new building, and Heather Campbell, representing U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, said Maryland's congressional delegation "stands at the ready to be of assistance however they can."

The facility has been designed by Edmeades & Stromdahl Ltd. of Bel Air, and J. Vinton Schafer & Sons Inc. of Abingdon is the general contractor.

A committee of nine Emergency Services and Public Works staff worked with the county government and the architects to design a facility that will meet their needs and best support the county's first responders.

"All of the agencies working for the [Harford County] citizens need the proper tools to carry out their missions," County Councilman Jim McMahan said.

The committee included Rick Ayers, Susan Ayers, Mike Brunicke, Ross Coates, Randy Cunningham, Linda Ploener, Mitch Vocke and Tami Wiggins of Emergency Services, and Ed Maley of Public Works.

Ayers, the deputy director of Emergency Services and the county's emergency manager, said there is no room to expand the existing facility, which has lost power, has no sleeping facilities and can be plagued by leaks during rain storms.

In addition to having a building three times the size of the current facility, the site includes nine acres donated by the county school system for expansion if needed.

Hickory Elementary School is a neighbor of the Emergency Operations building.

"The new facility will allow emergency services personnel to perform their vital duties in a more modern and safe work environment," Craig said in a statement issued by his office Monday. "As our demands for service continue to grow, this new facility will help us better serve the citizens of Harford County."

Strickland said he expects to return to the Ady Road site in 14 months for a grand opening.

"It will be the home that brings all of Harford's emergency services together," he said.

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