Harford County's volunteer fire and EMS companies have received a draft of a new executive order creating a county department to oversee their operations, as well as all existing county emergency operations.
Executive Order 12-8 by Harford County Executive David Craig is expected to be introduced by the Harford County Council at its legislative session Dec. 18.
Although the council had expected to introduce and hold a hearing on the latest executive order Tuesday, everything was pushed back another week to give the fire companies more opportunity to review the order and comment on it, county government spokesman Bob Thomas said Saturday.
"This gives the fire service an opportunity to review [the order] and get back to the county executive and the president of the county council," Thomas said.
The latest order has several important changes from Order 12-7 that Craig sent to the council in early November. The earlier order never was formally introduced because the fire company leaders and their umbrella organization, the Harford Fire and EMS Association, objected to its wording.
There have since been meetings involving the association, the county administration and Council President Billy Boniface and the council's lawyer, Thomas said, adding that the association "has worked with the administration on the wording of the order to try to come to a consensus on a department the fire service and the county can live with."
One change in the latest order is the name of the new department. Originally, it was going to be called the Department of Public Safety, but now the name will be the Department of Emergency Operations.
Also gone from the latest order is any reference to the department's director being responsible for "the coordination, command, control and oversight of the fire and emergency service operations," which raised the principal objection with county fire service leaders.
The latest order states: "The Director shall coordinate with and support the Harford County Volunteer Fire and Emergency Medical Services Association on issues regarding fire and emergency medical services."
The order then goes on to list areas in which the Department of Emergency Services will be responsible "for the oversight of the affairs of the County in:
"Providing a high quality of Fire/Rescue protection, prevention, suppression, training and quality assurance;
"Providing a high quality [of] Emergency medical services delivery, training and quality assurance;
"Volunteer fire company funding, support and coordination;
"All other aspects of Emergency Services."
Another feature of the new order is the addition of justification for the new department, citing two previous county government actions in 1989 and 1993 that created the Harford County Emergency Operations Center and placed the agency under the supervision of the county executive's director of administration and later expanded its responsibilities and powers.
After receiving the draft of the new executive order on Friday morning, the fire and EMS association began circulating it to various officials, after which the order also made the rounds of local fire companies via e-mail.
William J. Dousa Jr., the association president, was not available to comment; however, Rich Gardiner, spokesman for the association said Saturday the situation with the new order "is progressing well."
"The Association and the Executive are currently working together on the order's language to come to an amenable document to present to the County Council," Gardiner wrote in an e-mail. "Once the language is finalized the leadership/officers of the Association will have a special meeting of the member [fire] companies to present to them the final document. This meeting could occur sometime late this coming week."
He also confirmed the association is having its lawyer, John Gessner, of Bel Air, review the document.
Gardiner said he couldn't speak to specific language changes in the latest order, but added: "The Association is extremely pleased to have the opportunity to work with the Executive on this. Together we look forward to moving fire and EMS to a higher level of service in Harford County."
Thomas, the county spokesman, said it is possible the latest order could undergo more changes before it is finally introduced by the county council on the 18th.
More concerns emerge
That comment was seconded by Bel Air Fire Company Chief Eddie Hopkins, who said Tuesday he believes another draft is likely before the order formally goes to the county council.
Speaking during a Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners work session, Hopkins, who is also the chairman of the town board, said the fire service does not oppose having a department, but some leaders still have reservations about the way the latest order is written.
Specifically, he said, there is concern with the use of the term "oversight" in Section D of the order without any written elaboration, especially because Craig's tenure as county executive is due to end in two years and the next county executive could have a different interpretation of the relationship between the county and the fire service.
"We need [for the order] to be effective," Hopkins said, noting that some fire service leaders believe Section D is too vague.
He also noted that while the new department will also run emergency dispatching, hazmat and disaster response, the fire service "has the biggest dog in the fight."
Hopkins likewise said the county executive changed the name of the department from public safety to emergency services because the sheriff and town police agencies were concerned the first name was a gateway to giving the county direct control over them.
Despite all the reservations about the order, Hopkins said he expects it to pass and the county will have a cabinet level department in charge of fire, emergency medical services and the 9-1-1 Center.
For more than two years, Craig has sought to bring more county financial and operational oversight to the 12 independent fire and ambulance companies in the county.
Though they are private organizations, the fire companies receive about $12 million yearly in direct county funding toward their operational and equipment expenses, as well as periodic county financial support for improvements to their facilities.
Just last month, the county turned over a new fire station in the Bel Air South area to the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company that was built entirely with county funds on property that was owned by the county, since deeded to the fire company.
Though Craig has succeeded in requiring the fire companies to turn over annual audits of their finances to the county, he butted heads with the fire and EMS association last spring when he tried to create a permanent county Public Safety Commission. The county council sided with the fire companies and refused to pass legislation creating the panel; however, Craig used an executive order to form it instead, and the council did not defeat the order.
The underlying issue behind the financial oversight, creation of a public safety commission and now the creation of an emergency services department, is the feeling by Craig and some veteran members of the fire service that Harford, because of its population growth, can no longer strictly rely on an all-volunteer fire service.
The county, whose population is about 245,000, is the largest in Maryland without a paid fire department. The county does contribute some funding to a privately run, hybrid nonprofit emergency ambulance service with paid drivers and emergency medical technicians that was set up to back up the volunteer services. The paid ambulance service ran into financial difficulties last fiscal year and had to be bailed out with a $400,000 county emergency appropriation approved by Craig and the county council in April.