Harford County's fire and emergency medical companies and the county government are digging in and planning their own responses in the escalating battle between a union that won recognition rights for paid medics last year and about 20 employees who have refused to join the union.
There's potentially a lot at stake for the county's privately run, mostly volunteer fire and ambulance companies, which could be forced to concede more control to the county, as a result of the union fight, according to some of the issues discussed last week among members of the Harford County Public Safety Commission.
The dispute further complicates the organization of Harford County's emergency ambulance service, which has a volunteer component, supplemented by at least three loosely related elements staffed by paid responders. The union dispute involves the paid component of the emergency ambulance service.
During the commission's meeting Thursday at the Darlington Volunteer Fire Company, chairman Tony Bennett recapped a meeting that the commission was asked to attend a week earlier at the Department of Emergency Services with the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Foundation, the local branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters and several chief officers of fire and EMS services in the county.
The Fire and EMS Foundation was established by the volunteer companies to manage a paid ambulance service as a supplement to volunteer services, because the county's growth and the inability to sustain an all-volunteer service in significant numbers was compromising emergency medical responses.
The meeting came after a letter from the union demanded the foundation fire 20 paid medics for refusing to join the union whose bargaining agreement gives it a closed shop and thus permits the collection of union dues as a condition of employment. Bennett said several issues were "placed on the table to be accomplished" during the meeting.
Previous reports on the paid component of the emergency ambulance service have noted there are roughly 60 responders who draw pay for service.
"One was to, look at, basically, who's in charge. One was to look at the issue of the union and the foundation and representation involved in that," Bennett said. "The other was to look at scenarios if in fact, for instance, all union employees walked because of this issue, or if the volunteers walked because of the issue."
Meanwhile, the foundation employees who have refused to join the union are fighting a demand that they pay full union dues, according to the National Right to Work Defense Union, a pro right to work organization that says the employees filed an unfair labor practices charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board.
Bennett said the group that convened to discuss responses to the worsening union conflict has been charged with coming up with a plan for what would be done if a walkout happened. He also said the county law department was charged with taking a look at the county codes and the county charter for guiding principles "relative to the issues that came out of that meeting."
"One of the other things that came out of that meeting was to assign a task force in essence to look at the issue and come up with some answers," Bennett added. "That body is basically charged with coming back with some solutions relative to the issues that cropped up during the last couple of weeks."
The task force is comprised of the chair of the association, the chair of the Chief Officers Liaison Committee (COLC), the chair of the commission, the head of the Department of Emergency Services and the foundation's medical director, all with support from Harford County's legal staff, Bennett said.
Commission member Russell Strickland, who is also the head of the county emergency services department, agreed with Bennett's summary, and explained the next likely step would be for the task force to "look at legislation as to what it is and how it is we would truly set up the responsibility legally for fire rescue services in the county."
Strickland said the county charter doesn't specify how to organize and develop a fire department, unlike municipal charters in the county.
"So what we need to do is come together and develop legislation that would be acceptable to all, at least the majority, and present that to the council and go through that process so that we have something in place," Strickland said. "So we'll start working on that now with the group in the next few weeks."
Commission member Edward Hopkins, who is chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company and mayor of Bel Air, asked whether municipal governments would be included in the process, as they would have a stake in it. Strickland said he had not thought about it but agreed with Hopkins that the municipalities should be included.
Bennett said that in regard to the legislation, "we're shooting for a September date to go forward with the [county] council."
"Now the council will probably be involved with the process too, because they are one of the stakeholders," Bennett said. "There probably will be at least some type of invitation for representation from the council to be present at this group."
Centralized county government control over what is a privately run fire and emergency medical service has become a major political issue over the past few years, as the administration of Harford County Executive David Craig has sought more financial accountability from the county's dozen volunteer fire and ambulance companies. The administration also has sought more uniform standards on training of fire and EMS personnel and the acquisition of equipment.
Two years ago, the foundation's budget, which is partially funded by the county, was in danger of going into the red because of unforeseen expenses in fighting the unionization effort; the foundation was unsuccessful in preventing the union from establishing itself.
According to a news release issued last week by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the medical first responders who are fighting dismissal cannot be forced to pay any part of the union's dues "used for union politics and member-only events."
The organization, which is providing free legal advice in the National Labor Relations Board case, said IAFF union officials "refused to provide workers with the amount of union dues or fees nonmember workers must pay as a condition of their employment or a reasonable opportunity to refrain from full dues payment."
Dispatch coordination, standards
At the previous month's meeting, commission members were tasked with presenting their top four priority items from the 2011 Harford County Fire and EMS Services Master Plan at the meeting held Thursday.
Among the key issues discussed were the accessibility, responsibility and authority of each of the county's fire and EMS services. Bennett said this is expected to be addressed in September when legislative action is anticipated.
Commission members also agreed that coordinating dispatch services in the county is an important issue, particularly having the closest service respond to a particular emergency call.
"Nobody's against not sending the closest unit," Susquehanna Hose Company Chief Scott Hurst said. "Any fire chief in this county who would argue that point - it would be very foolish of them to do [so]. You can't get around not sending the closest fire trucks and the closest ambulances."
Also mentioned was education for citizens on issues such as how to administer CPR and operate automated external defibrillators, and improving the recruitment and retention of service members.
Regarding officer training standards for the county's various fire companies, Bennett said that standards the committee recommended went last month to Craig, the county executive, who asked for and was given supporting documentation. Bennett said Craig has yet to come to a conclusion.
"As of today's meeting, we do not have any indication, one way or the other, as far as how he's going to approach a decision on that," Bennett said of the county executive's position on the new standards. "As soon as that is made, we will let everyone know."