Harford County’s investment in its volunteer fire and emergency medical services could grow if County Executive Barry Glassman’s proposals for a new fire substation and student loan repayment for EMS workers pass the county council.
Glassman, a former volunteer EMS worker himself, revealed proposals to construct a new fire substation near the James Run development in Riverside and repay up to $20,000 of college graduates’ student loans if they serve as volunteer first responders at his state of the county address Tuesday.
Glassman said he plans to allocate money for both proposals in the county’s budget, debuting in April, which the county council should vote to approve in late May or early June. If approved, the loan repayment program would begin July 1.
While some costs are still up in the air, Glassman said he planned to allocate $100,000 from property and income tax revenue to the repayment program in its first stages. The broad-brush idea has already been decided, he said, and the county’s Department of Emergency Services will determine who the payments go to and how they should be tracked and allocated.
County Council President Patrick Vincenti said that Tuesday’s address was the first the council had heard of the proposal. The seven-member body has the power to deduct money from the budget, but it can only redirect funds to education.
"The council in the past has been very support of our firefighters and EMS, and I believe they will continue to be,” Vincenti said. “I don’t believe the county executive would be proposing this without consulting with the treasurer and everyone else involved, and I don’t think he would put this forward if he thought it was going to take a bite out of something necessary.”
The idea for the loan repayment program came from legislation introduced in Pennsylvania, Glassman said, and the need for the program came from a dwindling supply of volunteer fire and EMS workers.
Harford County has historically relied on its volunteer EMS services. But the pressures of long training periods and the hard hours spent after their day jobs leave many burnt out and dissuade potential volunteers from applying. Volunteer services are also cheaper than the county shouldering the burden.
“[The student debt repayment program] is just a tool I want to put out there to see if it works and we can attract new responders,” Glassman said. "It is one of those issues where if we do not begin to address it, it is just going to get worse.”
Harford County does employ some of its own EMS personnel, but they are meant to supplement the volunteer services, which act on the frontlines of emergency situations. The county is working to change that, but Glassman estimated would take 10 or 15 years.
"We kind of have a bifurcated system. It is a transitioning system,” Glassman said. "We would like to see the volunteers be successful as long as possible because they save us a great deal of money.”
The proposal should be seriously considered, said Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association. Any new ideas for attracting and retaining volunteers are welcome, he said.
“We are really appreciative of the county executive for presenting these ideas,” Gardiner said. “You have to try everything imaginable to see if it works.”
Other organizational issues within volunteer fire departments are secondary to recruitment, Gardiner said. The county is still reliant on the 1,500 people of 12 volunteer fire and EMS organizations throughout the county, and those volunteers are dropping off.
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“This system across the country is dying slowly,” he said. “It is not just a Harford County problem. This is a Maryland problem, and we are all competing for the same people.”
Glassman also hopes the repayment program would attract a more varied pool of volunteers like when he was riding out to calls with the Level Volunteer Fire Company.
“What we envision is sort of like what we had in the old days in the volunteer system," he said. “You could have ... people from all walks of life.”
Further underscoring the county and volunteers’ interdependence, Glassman proposed the construction of a new fire substation in Riverside — a county building that would be staffed primarily by volunteers from the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company.
The county would construct the building and lease it to the fire company. Normally, the county provides between $750,000 and $1 million to fund building construction or renovation for the volunteer services.
“The county cannot borrow for or finance buildings for them,” Glassman said. “It has really put a kind of hardship on local companies as far as financing capital projects.”
This way, he said, the county can help reduce the immediate costs to the fire company.