Harford County fire and emergency medical services leaders, stung by critical and negative social media posts, have limited how much incident information is broadcast via an app, which all of the county's roughly 1,100 fire and EMS volunteers and workers can use to follow emergency calls.
The anonymous administrator of the Harford Fire Facts page on Facebook made a series of posts between Dec. 14 and Dec. 17 about fire trucks or ambulances that allegedly "failed" to respond to a call and had to be covered by sister fire companies and about EMS units that were dispatched as "driver only," without other EMTs on board.
The posts were designed to cast a negative image of Harford's largely volunteer fire and EMS supposed inability to respond promptly and with enough manpower to answer calls. Some of the information on Facebook was misleading, fire and EMS officials say.
"I'd love to know who's doing it so we can correct the issue," Emergency Services Director Edward Hopkins said last week.
Hopkins and others have described the Fire Facts posts as misleading and presenting only one side of the story on each call.
"Information that was either incomplete or misleading was going on" the Facebook Page, county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said in a recent interview. She also acknowledged the Harford Fire Facts post prompted the county to "pull back" on the amount of information it provides to all fire and EMS personnel via the county's alert system.
The Facebook page in question has 149 likes, but it has not been updated since Dec. 17. The page description states Harford Fire Facts is "providing actual facts about Harford County Fire and EMS. Bringing issues and problems to the attention of the citizens living and working in Harford Co."
The information about units that failed had been available to any first responder who downloaded the RedNMX Responder app for a smartphone or tablet or who was assigned one of the approximately 700 county-owned pagers.
Since the Harford Fire Facts flap, information about units' response statuses is no longer available to all users, but is shared only with chiefs, incident commanders and the firefighters and EMS workers responding to a call, according to Hopkins.
"Great damage can be inflicted with such postings and the customers we serve could become concerned over their safety and the ability of the service to properly do its job," according to a statement from the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association.
The app is not publicly available; it is owned by the county, and first responders must use their county-issued identification numbers to download it, according to the statement.
Users can see basic information about the call, such as the location and nature of the incident, a GPS map, the availability of units and their response status, according to the statement and Hopkins.
Social media issues
Harford Fire Facts isn't the first time the Harford fire and EMS system has been embroiled in a social media controversy.
In 2012, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, the county's busiest, severely disciplined four firefighters for a private Facebook post that criticized and made veiled threats against a local restaurant when it failed to provide them with free food, after the fire company was called to extinguish a minor fire on the premises.
Hopkins, who was BAVFC's chief at the time, described the matter as one of the most conflicted he had experienced in nearly four decades as a volunteer firefighter.
On New Year's Day 2015, dueling Facebook posts involving Bel Air and Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company members, over the latter's claim to have responded to the first fire of the new year, caused what amounted to a dust-up between members of the two companies in front of Bel Air's main firehouse.
Though the latter incident was mostly kept out of the public eye, fire service leaders have since acknowledged it happened. During an interview session with editors of The Aegis last spring, County Executive Barry Glassman, a former volunteer firefighter, said the 2015 incident was one of the reasons he proffered legislation to bring more county government control over administrative aspects of the fire service.
Unable to get the support of the Harford Volunteer Fire & EMS Association's board, which speaks for the 12 independent and privately run companies, however, Glassman never introduced the legislation for which he said could not get "a single vote" from the board.
Last summer, Glassman commissioned a study of the entire emergency medical service system in the county through the Center for Health and Homeland Security, or CHHS, at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. He talked about the need for such a study in his 2016 State of the County address delivered a year ago.
Glassman will provide an update on the study when he delivers this year's State of the County address Tuesday, according to Mumby, who said in an email Monday that "we hope to have the final report soon" from the CHHS.
The profile picture on Harford Fire Facts is a screen shot of units' response statuses between 5:44 p.m. and 5:47 p.m., although a date is not shown. Three units are tagged "unit failed," and one is tagged "en route," although there is no information about what call those units were responding to, or if they were sent to different calls around the same time.
That part of the app has gone dark, except for fire company leadership and those involved in a call for service. The rest is still available to the fire and EMS community.
"The only thing that was restricted was the status of the units involved," Hopkins said.
While Harford does not have a paid fire or EMS service per se, some larger companies augment their rosters with paid paramedics who are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, the county helps supplement a paid contingent of EMS crews run by a foundation, which in turn is controlled by the Fire and EMS Association. The foundation units are based at fire stations in Level and Whiteford, to serve more remote areas of the county, away from the larger fire companies.
The challenge of finding enough volunteers, or the money to pay paramedics, to provide sufficient coverage has been an ongoing concern for fire and EMS leaders.
The posts on Harford Fire Facts have fire service leaders concerned that the public is getting the impression that calls for service are not being handled.
"Rest assured fire and EMS units are responding to all calls," according to the association's statement. "Yes, there are days when units may respond late or yes, fail; but the latter is of extreme nature but the incident is still handled. There has NEVER been a time when fire/EMS units failed to show up on a request for help."
The term failed comes from the code "unit fail," which Emergency Services dispatchers apply to any unit that is alerted to a call but fails to respond within the required five minutes, according to Rich Gardiner, a spokesperson for the association. The dispatcher marks that unit as failed, and it will not be recommended for another call in the next 15 minutes.
"The fail safes that are available are mutual aid and other fire companies coming to support that company," Hopkins said.
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He said a unit can fail for reasons such as insufficient staffing, mechanical problems, a unit being alerted and then canceled, or first responders forgetting to log into a computer that they are en route.
Facebook posts that just say a unit failed "could too easily be misinterpreted by the reader," Hopkins noted.
The term "driver only" means the driver of an ambulance or paramedic unit is responding to a call alone, although other EMS workers are en route to meet the driver and "complete the EMS crew," according to Gardiner.
"Of course that part isn't disclosed," Gardiner wrote in an email about the Harford Fire Facts postings. "That would dampen the drama such a posting creates. Again the other side of the story that isn't being told."
Hopkins noted the RedNMX Responder has been in use in Harford County for six to eight years, and it has been a useful tool, whether used by incident commanders to get a full picture of what units are responding and their locations, or firefighters who see an incident can log via the app that they are responding and determine how they can best be of service.
"We simply wanted the information to be interpreted by the reader correctly," he said.
Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this report.