Harford council reviews $20 million DES budget

Russell Strickland, the new director of Harford County's newly-minted Department of Emergency Services, appeared before members of the County Council Thursday to make the case for his department's $20 million-plus budget for the 2014 fiscal year.

The hearing showed the delicate balancing act Strickland will have to perform as the county's disparate fire and ambulance companies, emergency communications center, special response units become more united under his agency.

Most, but not all, of Strickland's first budget presentation to the council went off without incident, though one proposal drew fire from a veteran volunteer fire service leader who is also one of the council's citizen budget advisors.

Strickland presented a $20.3 million budget, proposed by County Executive David Craig, to the council during its final work session on the county executive's 2014 spending plan. The Harford County Sheriff's Office and the volunteer fire and EMS association officials also presented their budgets.

The director said Department of Emergency Services officials will "work with what it is we have and at the same time, work with the fire and rescue services of the county and see what we can do to develop, so that we can move forward together and continue to provide the same level of services, and be as reasonable with our expenditures as we can."

The agency was established in 2012 by an executive order signed by Craig; Strickland was appointed as its first director earlier this year; he had been running the county's emergency operations center since last July.

The newly created department oversees emergency communications countywide, the county's volunteer fire and EMS companies, the HAZMAT response team, the Technical Rescue Team, serves as the county's main emergency management and Homeland Security agency, develops response plans for natural and human disasters.

While volunteer fire service leaders largely supported the move to create a countywide emergency services agency, the transition has not always been easy.

That became evident again Thursday, when J. Alan Thompson, a member of the council's Citizens Budget Advisory Board and a long-serving member of the Darlington Volunteer Fire Company, took issue with the Technical Rescue Team being moved from the purview of the county's privately run Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, to the oversight of the Department of Emergency Services.

The operation will be known as the Tactical Response Team under Department of Emergency Services, and $150,370 has been budgeted for it.

"The TRT was established by the fire association, [has] been administered by the fire association, funds have been maintained by the association, have been audited by an auditor – we've taken care of it all along," Thompson protested.

Thompson said the TRT members are drawn from volunteer fire companies and "a lot of the equipment is equipment bought by the fire companies themselves," not by the county or with county funds.

The unit is responsible for performing high-risk rescues, such as recovering bodies, water rescues and rope rescues from cliffs. In addition to having a number of large bodies of water used for boating and other water sports, the Rocks State Parks area in north central Harford is known for its cliffs and sheer rock faces that attract climbers and are frequently prone to falls and other mishaps.

Strickland stressed the Department of Emergency Services will "provide support and solely support, not operations, but solely support to the Technical Rescue Team."

While Thompson said the fire companies were not involved in the proposed transfer of the TRT from Association to Department of Emergency Services authority, Strickland said he met with Aberdeen Fire Chief Steven Hinch, head of the TRT and Fire and EMS Association President Bill Dousa and offered to provide department support to the team in terms of helping to maintain equipment, schedule training sessions and more.

Strickland also said department officials are "more than happy" to develop a memorandum of understanding to clarify what each agency's role is in managing the TRT.

"The role of DES in the TRT at this time is nothing more than to support the operations of the technical rescue team," Strickland explained.

Thompson was still not satisfied, though, and said the county's "budget book," which contains the complete 2014 budget and narrative, indicates "that it's just the opposite of what you [Strickland] said.

Council President Billy Boniface asked Strickland to change the wording in his department's budget request to reflect just a support role for the TRT, to clear up any misunderstanding.

"Although these are just workbooks and not the actual law, I think we don't want to create any confusion," Boniface said. "He [Thompson] brings up a good point."

Dave Williams, another member of the council's budget advisory board and a member of the Fallston Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company, noted funding is in the budget for part-time temporary HAZMAT and TRT technicians.

Williams asked if the technicians would be allowed to perform "response activities."

"While they're working during that time period and there is a call – and they would be of value to that call – they can certainly go, but they would be under the command of whoever the incident commander is as well as whoever the operational chief is for the Technical Rescue Team," Strickland explained.

"In a manner, we're – for lack of a better term – we're morphing the TRT the same way the HAZMAT team originally started," Williams said.

Capital projects

Several capital projects for the DES also will be funded in FY 2014, as well.

The county executive's proposed capital budget allocates $10.1 million in county, state and federal funds for a new Emergency Operations Center in Forest Hill – the county is providing $5.6 million toward construction.

The first phase of construction is scheduled to begin during the current fiscal year, with the second and final phase completed during FY 2016.

The county executive has also allocated $100,000 in local funds toward an ongoing project to equip public schools with bi-directional amplifiers to upgrade emergency radio coverage in the schools.

Finally, $13 million in county funds has been set aside for a federally-mandated effort to upgrade facilities in Harford County to handle 700 and 800 MHz radio traffic and be in compliance with the latest technology thresholds, known as P-25.

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