Great changes are coming to Harford County's fire and EMS service in the next decade, and the leaders of the Aberdeen Fire Department — like their counterparts throughout the county — must be prepared for it, according to Edward Hopkins, director of the Department of Emergency Services.
"Think about those people, from 1889 forward, who built a foundation of your fire company, embracing change and never wavering in their mission to serve and protect your Aberdeen community and all the residents of Harford County," Hopkins said during Aberdeen's annual awards banquet Saturday.
Hopkins was the keynote speaker at the banquet, which was held at the AFD's main firehouse on Rogers Street.
Aberdeen is one of 12 volunteer fire and EMS companies serving Harford County, which does not have a full-time paid fire or ambulance service.
County leaders are proposing significant changes, such as a gradual shift to a county-run EMS service, as recommended in a recent study conducted by the University of Maryland Center for Health & Homeland Security for the county government.
Fire suppression is an all-volunteer service, while EMS is provided by a mix of volunteers and paid providers. The companies are challenged in both areas, as it is more difficult for volunteers to balance answering calls with family and work commitments, they must meet more stringent training requirements and safety regulations, they are adopting more advanced — and costly — firefighting technology, and fire companies operate in a world of public scrutiny, social media rumors and protecting themselves from lawsuits, according to Hopkins.
"In 2017, our battle rhythm has gone from a slow, diminutive waltz where your dance steps are measured to a mosh pit at a Metallica concert where you are bounced and slammed around, seemingly with no direction," Hopkins said.
Hopkins, a member of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company and its former chief, said he doubts that "in five years the fire service will resemble what we have today, and in 10 years it will be drastically, drastically different."
He said firefighters will "always continue to put the wet stuff on the red stuff," but for fire department leaders, "it is all the other changes that we have to face that will tax your spirit."
"You will be challenged by so many external forces that a multi-story, three-alarm working fire with rescue seem like a walk in the park," he said.
Hopkins offered a "pearl," though, noting "Aberdeen has a long and amazing history."
"Make no mistake about it," he said. "You have extremely talented people leading this department. The challenges faced today by your leadership are taxing and although they were fewer than the challenges faced by your founders and those moving forward were equally as taxing."
Hopkins said the fire company officers of today and tomorrow will be "multi-faceted, multi-talented, versatile consensus builders more deeply involved in the budget, bureaucratic and political landscape than any of your predecessors — these are changes that we have to accept."
Two experienced apparatus drivers were recognized Saturday for their actions when tires blew on their vehicles in two incidents last December.
Those incidents "could have had a tragic outcome if it were not for their quick and effective action and outstanding personal performance," John Bender, an AFD safety officer and board member, said as he presented the department's John F. Bender Safety Award — the award is named after Bender.
The first incident happened Dec. 21, 2016, when Tony Bennett was driving the department's heavy-duty rescue truck toward Cecil County, where the Harford County Technical Rescue Team had been requested to assist on a call where a farm worker's leg was caught in an auger.
The 25-ton truck that Bennett, a 50-year member of Aberdeen, was driving is the "primary support unit" for the TRT, according to Bender.
The driver's side tire on Rescue 251 blew "suddenly and without warning" as Bennett was cresting a hill along Route 40 between Perryville and North East, Bender said.
The left front of the vehicle was on its rim, and Bennett maneuvered the truck to the left toward the grassy median of Route 40. The truck slid along a metal guardrail in the median and came to a stop — Bennett's action prevented the vehicle from tipping on its side or rolling over, "thus preventing serious injury or death to the crew," according to Bender.
The injured farm worker was freed from the machine "by other means," his leg was saved, and he is expected to recover, Bender said.
Bennett was not on hand at Saturday's banquet to receive his award.
The second incident happened Dec. 30, 2016, as Capt. Steven S. Hinch — the son of Fire Chief Steven C. Hinch — was driving Engine 211 to the scene of a truck fire on Interstate 95.
The pumper truck, a 2010 Pierce engine, held about 900 gallons of water and weighs about 15 tons, according to Bender. Five firefighters were on board, including the driver.
The truck fire turned out to be smoke from the vehicle's brakes, so Engine 211 was not needed. Hinch moved toward the slow lane, and he noticed the steering was pulling to the right, Bender said.
He relayed the information to the officer sitting next to him — Hinch said later that officer was his father — who recommended checking the engine when they returned to the fire station.
Another firefighter, who was sitting behind Chief Hinch, said he could feel a "severe vibration" on his side. The tire on the front passenger side blew as soon as he mentioned the vibration, according to Bender.
Capt. Hinch maintained control, and he gradually brought the engine to a stop along the shoulder of the highway, according to Bender.
"Although this incident appears to be a little less dramatic than the first incident, it nevertheless had the same potential to be a tragic incident had it not been for the great instinct and experience of the driver," Bender said.
Hinch said later that he has been a member of Aberdeen since 2005. He is a lieutenant with Aberdeen Proving Ground's fire department, which is a paid position. He noted he has had annual driver training through the APG fire department as well as "just driving the units and doing your basic preventive maintenance," for the Aberdeen Fire Department.
Years of service, top responders
Aberdeen members were recognized Saturday for their years of service to the company, ranging from five years to 60 years.
Megan Budnick was recognized for five years of service, and Travis Miller-Budnick was honored for 10 years.
Brian Cully, Florine Lovelace and Jim Pritts were recognized for 25 years, and Bobby Gordon for 30 years.
Steve Hinch was honored for 35 years of service, Dale Budnick for 40 years and Tony Bennett and Chuck Glassman for 50 years.
John Bender was honored for 55 years, and D. Bennett Smith Jr. was honored for 60 years of service.
Aberdeen members handled 4,599 calls for service in 2016, including 854 fire calls and 3,745 fire calls. Members also handled 4,216 hours of administrative duty, according to the banquet program.
The top volunteer fire responders were D.B. Smith Jr. with 775 calls; Wilfried Adams, 513; George Keithley, 492; John Bender, 467; Dale Budnick Sr., 446; Dale Budnick Jr., 406; Edward Budnick, 371; Tony Bennett, 264; Noel Budnick, 251; Joshua Montague, 246; Walter Hare, 238; Scott Budnick, 233; Joshua Blanchette, 230; James Pritts, 210 and Rebecca Roberts, 202 calls.
The top volunteer EMS responders were Judy Mills-Hinch with 137 calls; Dale Budnick Sr., 121; Darnell Hill, 86; Daniel Smith Jr., 85; John Bender, 70 and George Keithley, 70 calls.