Harford County Councilman Dion Guthrie noticed a bit of smoke in his home on a recent morning and immediately called 9-1-1. The Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Co. arrived within minutes and doused a fire that had begun in mulch on the side of the house, he said.
"Ours is a volunteer service that is doing an outstanding job," said Guthrie. "Why would we want to change it?"
However, County Executive David R. Craig said sweeping changes are critical to keeping the service viable and oversight is critical given the county's $10 million annual contribution to its 12 volunteer companies. Last week he created an advisory comission to work with the fire service.
"All aspects of what we provide need updating," Craig said. "We have to act now."
Craig wants to reduce response times, which are already within accepted standards, boost recruitment and training, consolidate purchasing and ambulance billing and find new sources of funding. He based the action on a 2008 comprehensive fire study that made more than 130 recommendations for improving fire and emergency services, he said.
"The study showed us a lot of ways to save money and act more efficiently," he said.
Gone are the days when volunteers had time to put out fires and hold dinners, bingos and carnivals to raise the funds to run their operations. The volunteer companies must find other sources of revenue, such as grants.
As Harford's population approaches 250,000, the demands on firefighters and emergency services technicians have increased significantly. Bel Air, the largest and busiest company, responded to 6,343 emergencies last year and handled 2,176 fire calls. It has one satellite station in Forest Hill and is building a second on Route 924. In one hour on a recent weekday, the station handled five emergency calls.
Nearly a decade ago, after the service conducted its own study, it staffed stations with paid EMTs to ensure round-the-clock protection. Association leaders are planning for the time when companies might have to hire firefighters, but "at this point, there is no need," said Bill Dousa, president of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association.
Ken Farmer, a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a section chief at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, recently gave Harford volunteers a workshop that outlined plans for a company of career and volunteer firefighters, such as Howard County operates.
"One of the biggest issues facing volunteer services around the country is the potential for merging into a paid service," Farmer said. "There is an ever growing demand for services that places a high demand on volunteers. There is a tipping point, when a service with strictly volunteers can't manage to get a turnout."
Craig said he wants to preserve the volunteer system, streamline costs and consolidate coverage. The council opposed his efforts to establish an advisory commission and amended the proposal several times before Craig withdrew it, the day before the vote.
Instead, Craig empaneled the Harford County Public Safety Commission by an executive order Tuesday. This quasi-governmental board is meant to serve as a liaison between the volunteers and his office, and make recommendations to Craig on budgets, training, recruiting and purchasing. The order remains in effect at least through his term, which ends in 2014.
"Leadership means making difficult decisions and having the vision to move forward," Craig said. "We are not getting the desired leadership from the council and we can't kick safety down the road."
The idea for an advisory commission grew out of the 2008 fire study, in which public safety management consultants interviewed more than 500 members of Harford's fire service and recommended sweeping changes. The study also determined it would cost the county about $61 million in salaries alone to replace the volunteers.
"The study did not condemn," Craig said. "It is about the overall good. There is no attempt to eliminate the fire service, only to expand what the county does."
Members have already addressed several issues, Dousa said.
"We provided much of the information for the study," Dousa said. "The consultants told us the problems. We are fixing them."
Harford's service monitors and improves itself, Dousa said. Hiring EMTs, for example, decreased response times from station to call by 25 percent, officials said. About 75 percent of Harford's calls annually are for emergency services. Residents are charged the ambulance fee, usually $700 and typically reimbursed through the patient's insurance. That money is paid to the station that responded to the call and is used for operations costs, association officials said.
The county views billing funds as revenue and wants uniformity of accounting and more transparency about the amounts collected and how the money is spent, officials said.
"We want all the companies on the same page, as opposed to each doing their own thing," said Robert B. Thomas Jr., county spokesman.
Harford's volunteer service accounts for less than 2 percent of the county budget and posts the lowest per capita costs in the metropolitan region at nearly $37 per resident. Baltimore County, which operates a combined system, allocates nearly 6 percent of its budget to fire and emergency services and its per capita cost is $116, according to data collected by the Maryland Association of Counties.
Harford Councilman Joe Woods, the former fire chief in Fallston and a lifelong volunteer, said he wants the commission to "be a tool that helps us all" and one that involves all stakeholders.
"Who better to serve on this commission than the guys on the streets protecting citizens?" he asked. "As for accountability, audits and budgets, we are already doing that."
Craig named an 11-member commission with Tony Bennett, a longtime Aberdeen volunteer and business owner, as chairman, and several members who are active in the fire service.
"The fundamental role of local government is to provide best protection at the best possible range," Craig said.