Reconfiguring the territories served by Harford County's private volunteer fire and ambulance companies is one of several efforts being undertaken by the county to improve emergency response times, especially for ambulance crews.
Modifying response territories is far from a straightforward proposition, however, because it not only involves taking into account changes in the county that have occurred over the past few decades since territories were established, but also the new reality of paid ambulance crew staffing at some fire houses.
The issue of the effect of the boundaries of existing territories on ambulance response times was discussed during the Public Safety Commission's last meeting on March 28.
In Harford County, calls for emergency ambulance service far outstrip calls for other types of emergencies and, as a result, the traditionally all-volunteer fire and ambulance service in recent years has added a paid ambulance staff component.
Run by the umbrella organization for the county's private, not-for-profit community fire and ambulance companies, the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, the ambulance service is known as the Harford County Fire and Ambulance Foundation.
The foundation has paid emergency medical service crews on duty 24 hours a day at six fire stations across Harford County. Meanwhile, the traditional volunteer ambulance crews are dispatched out of many of the fire and ambulance stations across the county.
"It is known that we cannot simply 'dispatch the closest staffed unit,'" Bill Snyder, an assistant chief with the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, explained in notes on the subject provided to The Aegis, following his recent appearance at the Public Safety Commission.
"For example, the paramedic unit at the Forest Hill Station would have to be dispatched on all EMS calls in Harford County, north of Forest Hill," he wrote.
The commission was appointed by Harford County Executive David Craig with a goal of sorting out a variety of issues relating to the county's fire and ambulance service. Though the bulk of the service is provided by the various private volunteer fire and ambulance companies, those companies receive several million dollars a year in county government funding. The county also maintains and funds the county's 911 dispatch center, which assigns the fire and EMS companies to respond to calls for emergency service.
The service areas of each volunteer fire and EMS company are centered around numbered boxes – the fire and ambulance shorthand for small segments of an individual company's response area. Historically, dispatching an ambulance to a call in a particular territory, or box, was a matter of checking which fire company was assigned to respond. If the company's ambulance units are already out on a call, there are second, third, fourth and so on responders assigned to a particular box or territory.
Many stations have moved
In his research, Snyder noted that companies around the county have moved their stations farther away from their original boxes or have made other changes to adjust to population shifts in their respective areas during the past 20 years.
For example, Snyder found the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company has moved its main station north on Abingdon Road in the Box Hill South area and "no longer runs apparatus" from its No. 2 station farther to the east in the Otter Point-Abingdon Beach area. (The company's original station, on Abingdon Road near Route 7, was closed years ago when the company moved to its current home.)
Bel Air recently opened a third station in the Patterson Mill area south of town and closer to Abingdon, Snyder said, while the stations at Aberdeen Proving Ground, that often back up the volunteer companies in the southern tier of the county, must sometimes cope with taking longer to respond because some of the Army post's entrances are closed "at certain times."
The Darlington Volunteer Fire Company has moved its No. 2 station farther south on Route 136 from its original location, according to Snyder.
Addressing the changes in fire station locations that volunteer crews are from is further complicated by the paid crews that are dispatched out of some of the same fire stations, Snyder said.
The goal, he explained, is to "get people the closest unit," but that sometimes results in crews responding outside their designated response territories.
This involves determining which nearby crews are available to respond immediately, be they paid or volunteer, regardless of whether the crew is traditionally assigned to the territory where the emergency occurs.
Calls across territories
Snyder also stated in his notes to the commission: "Some departments have identified that their units run too many EMS calls into other departments' jurisdictions."
Snyder said after the meeting that a neighboring company can respond to a call, if its EMS unit is headquartered closer to the scene than the home company.
He went on to say another issue facing fire apparatus and ambulance drivers is the load capacity of some local bridges, which sometimes can force a crew to take a longer route to an emergency.
Sorting out the complexities of the response territory question is difficult enough; devising a quick and workable solution has proven to be even more so.
Some public safety commission members have suggested using a computer-aided dispatch system Harford County government is working to implement to help find the closest unit, especially when a company receives simultaneous calls.
"One of our biggest struggles, at least in the development envelope, is simultaneous calls in the air," commission member Dr. Timothy Chizmar, representing Upper Chesapeake Health, said during the March 28 meeting. The "envelope" is the densely populated area along Route 24 from Forest Hill to Edgewood and along Route 40 from Joppatowne to Havre de Grace.
"I think that [computer-aided dispatch] would go a long way to be able to give the dispatcher a birds-eye view as to where units are moving," said Chizmar, whose employer runs the county's two hospitals.
Snyder noted in his research that the fire side is a "much easier fix than EMS."
He suggested expanding the "dual dispatch" system – separating fire and EMS calls and currently in use by several companies – to other areas of the county.
He also determined that "no departments have identified that their units run too many fire calls into other departments' jurisdictions."
The Public Safety Commission's official recommendations on territories and other dispatching issues have not been released yet. Commission Chairman Tony Bennett said they would be made available once they are provided to the county executive.