Harford County Department of Emergency Services staff are constantly looking for ways to improve services to local citizens and be prepared for major changes — such as operating an ambulance service — meaning the department is prepared to handle "most any" crisis, according to Edward Hopkins, department director.
It's going to cost upwards of $2.5 million more next year for the DES to be prepared as it has a proposed operating budget of $24.1 million in fiscal 2019 which would be a little more than a 10 percent increase in spending over the $21.6 million Harford County Executive Barry Glassman allocated this year, according to budget documents.
That doesn't include an additional $490,000 for the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Foundation, another $189,000 to the volunteer fire companies, plus $3 million in capital expenditures.
More than $1.6 million of the Department of Emergency Services increase is dedicated to "personal services," or employee-related costs, such as the 2 percent COLA and $2,000 merit-based salary increase Glassman has pledged for county employees, the salaries and benefits for 16 paramedics who staff two "surge" ambulances that are on duty 24 hours a day; overtime to handle natural disasters; and increased health, pension and worker's compensation costs.
Glassman has allocated $3.54 million for the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Foundation next year, a $490,000 increase from this year. The Foundation works with fire and EMS companies to provide financial support for paid paramedics to augment their volunteer EMS personnel.
The increase is based on a request from Foundation officials to cover rising employee salary, health care and worker's compensation costs, according to the Foundation and budget documents.
Operations Manager Lisa Norton said, in response to a question from Councilman Mike Perrone about rising worker's compensation costs, that the Foundation has twice as many full-time employees compared to five or six years ago.
"With that, you're going to have an increase in injuries," she said.
Norton said costs, which are under audit, are estimated to go up by about $30,000.
Hopkins said the county is well prepared to deal with most calls, but not quite completely prepared to deal with all calls.
"I stop short of saying, 'all,'" Hopkins said during a recent budget work session with the Harford County Council and the citizen Budget Advisory Board.
He acknowledged the March 2 windstorm, which caused damage throughout the county and forced the state to close the Interstate 95 and Route 40 bridges across the Susquehanna River, stranding motorists in Cecil and Harford counties. Harford crews also had to deal with a CSX train derailment on the Perryville side of the trestle because of potential risks to Harford water resources and shorelines, Hopkins said.
He said the event "clearly identified many gaps and vulnerabilities" that will be addressed.
"The reality is, this event, while we didn't cause it, we certainly learned a lot from it," Hopkins said.
'Train, test, evaluate'
Another incident in August 2017, when lightning hit the DES building in Hickory, injured one 911 dispatcher and caused nine other staffers in the call center to feel the ill effects of what investigators suspect was static electricity that spread through the room.
Hopkins said the agency has offered wristbands that absorb static electricity to staffers, but "many of them actually don't want to wear them."
He told council members the lightning strike did not harm building operations, thanks to measures put in place to protect the facility.
"We didn't have a blip in the service that night," Hopkins said. "The lights barely even blinked."
He lauded his staff for their consistent efforts to "train, test, evaluate" and build partnerships.
"I think we can handle most anything that's tossed at us, and I'm thankful to have such a diverse and talented group of people working under me for the county," Hopkins said.
The first of the two county ambulances, which are meant to augment the EMS service provided by the county's volunteer fire companies, went into service in January, and the second is expected to enter into full service this summer.
Hopkins said the second ambulance can be deployed when needed. The county crews handle an average of 25 calls for service per week, and about 12 require transporting patients to the hospital, he said.
He said most calls are in the northern and central part of the county, such as communities north of Bel Air and in Fallston, Jarrettsville, Norrisville and Whiteford. County ambulances have also been requested for support in the Route 40 corridor and the Level/Havre de Grace area when call volumes are high.
Glassman has said the surge ambulances, plus the hiring of a medical director and appointing an EMS Standards Board, are the initial steps in a long-term transition to a county-run EMS, as the fire companies struggle to retain volunteers and have to take on greater costs of providing EMS in a growing county.
Hopkins also gave the council an update on construction of a permanent building to house the ambulance unit on the DES's Ady Road property. He said ground was broken a few weeks ago, and it should be ready by June.
Hopkins said that project was funded this fiscal year.
One new initiative for fiscal 2019 involves hiring 30 part-time rescue technicians for the county's Technical Rescue Team. The TRT is in charge of conducting searches, rescues and caring for trapped victims during natural or human-caused incidents and disasters, according to the county website.
Hopkins said five paid part-time crew chiefs lead the team, which is staffed by volunteers. The "highly multi-trained" volunteers come from fire and EMS companies, according to the website.
His concern is ensuring there are enough rescue crew members on hand in case of a disaster, that DES knows who the rescuers are, where they are and their training levels.
He cited a concern to council members that volunteers could be drawn back to their paid fire companies in another jurisdiction, if a disaster hits, leaving the Harford County team short-handed.
Councilman Joe Woods, a former Fallston Volunteer Fire & Ambulance Company chief, who also volunteers with the TRT, stressed the need to keep volunteers involved in the team.
Hopkins said he does not want to "lose sight" of the volunteers and hopes to "keep them integrated into the team as best we can."
He said officials will work through the process "very, very slowly." Hopkins said later that the paid rescuers should be in place by this fall.
The department is also working to train civilians to respond to "active assailant" incidents such as workplace or school attacks, or other life-threatening emergencies, Hopkins said. He said more than 100 people have been trained in the past year in emergency preparedness, planning, CPR, use of AEDs and active shooter responses.
The DES is incorporating "Stop the Bleed" training. The goal is to have all county employees trained by Christmas, and Stop the Bleed kits will be placed in county buildings along with AEDs.
"Stoppage of profuse bleeding can save a life," Hopkins said, citing data from the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 as well as the battlefields of Afghanistan.
He said Stop the Bleed is "easy to implement, easy to teach — everyone can do it, very, very simple."
Volunteer fire companies
Bill Dousa, vice president of the Volunteer Fire & EMS Association, thanked Glassman and his staff for funding increases to the fire companies, as well as continued funding of the EMS Foundation.
He said Foundation personnel have covered more than 11,000 EMS calls.
"If the Foundation went away, I think we'd be in serious trouble," Dousa said.
He reported Harford's 12 volunteer fire and EMS companies handled 8,382 fire calls and 25,742 EMS calls in fiscal 2017, and company members donated 586,853 volunteer hours, an equivalent of more than $16 million in payroll.
Glassman has allocated $6.9 million for fire companies next year, an increase of more than $189,000 from the $6.77 million funded this year. The increase includes $6,000 to replace Narcan used to revive people suffering from drug overdoses and a general increase of more than $183,000 in operating funds for all companies.
Glassman is also allocating $3 million for public safety capital projects next year, including renovating and expanding the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company's Hanson Road substation, renovating the Whiteford Volunteer Fire Company's main station and replacing SCBA breathing gear used by firefighters, according to budget documents.
Dousa expressed thanks for the increase in capital funds for fire companies, the first in 10 years, but he said "It would really help a lot of we had a general plan for the future" on capital funding, considering other outstanding maintenance needs.
He said two members of the association have been assigned to work with the county government "determine innovative ways to increase the capital funding."