Havre de Grace has a volunteer fire and ambulance service to be proud of.
The volunteer firefighters, organized as the Susquehanna Hose Company, are rightfully boastful of their quick response times, not to mention their high level of training. The Emergency Medical Services responders are organized as the Havre de Grace Ambulance Corps, which is unique in Harford County because of its separation from the fire company, not to mention its singular focus on providing emergency medic services.
The two have a primary response area that goes north to Susquehanna State Park, half way to Aberdeen on the south and west to I-95, or just beyond, where the nearby Level Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company picks up primary responsibility.
The fire company in Havre de Grace runs its trucks out of five firehouses, and the Havre de Grace Ambulance Corps has its own headquarters building and ambulance garage.
To the west in the county seat, and its large surrounding geographic area, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company has a main firehouse on Hickory Avenue at Route 22, a second substation in Forest Hill and a third substation under construction near the Patterson Mill school complex. Bel Air's primary response area is uniquely large in Harford County as it is geographically expansive and it also is home to a substantial portion of the county's population.
So why the disparity in the number of firehouses? Hard to say. Bel Air was already massive in terms of population years ago when ground was broken for the fifth firehouse in Havre de Grace. There's a good reason for the addition of the fifth house: A substantial amount of houses were built on the west side of the freight rail lines, and House 5 is the only house on the west side of the tracks.
The better question is: Why did it take so long for a house to be built in the southern part of Bel Air's area of responsibility?
What it has come down to over the years in the local fire and ambulance service is that, while each volunteer organization takes a great deal of pride in the high level of service provided, each one also has a different group of leaders and a different set of traditions. Havre de Grace has been a conglomeration of neighborhood fire companies; Bel Air has been more central in its operation. Each model has advantages and disadvantages.
A problem with the system as it stands today, at least from a countywide perspective, is the various fire companies have done relatively little to examine what each does and whether a particular fire company has a more cost-effective way of providing top-notch emergency services.
Way back when the fire companies were largely self-sufficient in terms of finances, that was probably OK. These days, however, the fire and ambulance service, though primarily staffed by volunteers and wholly managed by private, not-for-profit organizations, receives a substantial amount of direct county funding for things like equipment and firehouse building and upgrading, not to mention indirect support in the form of the complicated dispatching operation at the county's 911 center in Hickory.
And there's the whole matter of the ambulance part of the operation, which has long been the busiest in terms of calls for service, but is traditionally a back-seat function, except in Havre de Grace. A variety of paid-volunteer hybrid systems have been tried in the county, with some fire companies banding together, others going it alone and still others — mostly rural — sticking with all volunteer operations.
To date, the emergency medical services have held together, even as the finances and organization have been haphazard.
These subjects come to the forefront as a public safety commission devised by the county executive, over the objections of leaders of many of the fire companies and some county council members, is in the midst of dealing with what its members regard as prickly issues. Some are matters of practicality, such as looking at whether the Havre de Grace many-houses model (also in use to a lesser degree in Aberdeen) or the Bel Air main house model is more efficient, or if each has its place.
Other issues are more pressing in terms of public safety. While a high level of dedication has, thus far, prevented tragic outcomes resulting from the haphazard paid-volunteer hybrid ambulance system, the potential for disaster is increased by the precarious balance of the situation as it exists today.
It would be very easy for the new public safety commission, born amid shouting and posturing, to issue a report and go home, only to have that report sit on a shelf. That, however, is a formula for disaster. The fire and ambulance service that serves the county has many positive qualities, and a fine track record, but its organization hasn't been updated in decades, and it is sometimes plagued by intramural disputes.
It's been said on this page before, but it's a dead horse that bears beating until something concrete is done: A few feelings may be hurt before it's all over, but if something isn't done to get a handle on the county-supplied finances, and a few other management details, of the local fire and ambulance service, the potential for tragedy will only increase.
And when tragedy results from such a situation, all the good intentions and proud traditions will be of little consolation.