Emergency services chief ready to come to the county's rescue


The way lifelong county resident James W. Terrell figures it, the best bargain around costs only $9.37, and it's an investment that could be the difference between life and death.

That's what it costs each Harford resident annually for emergency services, said Chief Terrell, who heads the county's Emergency Operations Center in Hickory.

Computing that figure is simple long division: Divide the $1.8 million budgeted for emergency service operations by 192,000, the estimated population of the county.

Chief Terrell, 46, lives in Bel Air and has served the county for 30 years in fire and emergency work. He grew up in Darlington and was a volunteer firefighter when he was a teen-ager. He was chief of the Darlington Volunteer Fire Company for 12 years but gave that up after he was promoted to his present position in 1985.

He was a shift supervisor with the rank of lieutenant and had 23 years of experience at the center before he was named chief. With that long record of service he is a key link to the center's past and present and to its future.

Plans for new center

"Plans for a new addition [to the center] are in the architects' hands even as we speak," he said recently, adding that construction should begin next spring.

The $1.83 million facility will be paid for by a grant from the federal Emergency Preparedness Program. The building is expected to be completed in the spring of 1995, facilitating the county administration's planned merger of police dispatch with fire and 911 services.

The administration's proposed legislation will be presented to the County Council next month and, if it is passed, would shift the communications function of the sheriff's office and municipal police agencies to the county.

All emergency calls in the county would then be channeled fTC through the center and sent to the proper agency.

Increased efficiency in handling those nearly 1 million police, fire and emergency calls annually would be the primary benefit of such a merger, Chief Terrell said.

The 9,000-square-foot addition will more than double the center's present space.

But the public may not notice because the planned addition will be 16-feet underground, in front of and beneath the Ady Road facility.

The concrete one-story addition with 4 feet of compacted earth on top will be designed to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, earthquakes and even a nuclear accident at Peach Bottom power plant.

Details about the thickness of the walls and other features are not yet final, Chief Terrell said.

The possibility of natural disasters were the reason the present facility was built in 1962.

In 1972, when Hurricane Agnes was headed north along the Atlantic Coast and unexpectedly veered inland to race up the Chesapeake Bay, the county was prepared, Chief Terrell said. Crews were on stand-by to assist wherever flooding or loss of electrical power caused problems. Others stood by to assist transporting the injured and sick to hospitals.

County employees in public works and transportation were there to keep roads passable and assist emergency services.

Realistically, Chief Terrell said, there's a greater danger for Harford residents from potential chemical spills on Interstate 95 and U.S. 40.

"Hazardous materials [especially fuels such as gasoline and propane and many other chemicals] come through the county at the rate of 3,000 shipments a day," he said. "Truck accidents on the highways are much more likely than the natural disasters."

Nevertheless, from a logistical perspective, the Blizzard of '93 in March was the center's greatest challenge, Chief Terrell said.

"We partially mobilized [the center], calling in about 16 [of the 47 full- and part-time] staff members," he said. "For eight to 10 hours [during the blizzard], the county was paralyzed, but emergency equipment got through."

First on the center's agenda was lining up a sufficient number of four-wheel-drive vehicles and drivers. In one instance during the blizzard, a snowmobile and a sled were used to help take a victim to the hospital.

The memory brings a smile to the chief's face.

'The key'

"The key to emergency service is its volunteer base," he said. "I've done a lot of traveling, both statewide and beyond and witnessed first-hand how others operate," he said. "I truly believe Harford County has the best in manpower and services anywhere.

"Give me five minutes and I can muster several hundred [volunteers]. Make it after 5 p.m. [when normal work hours are concluded] and [that number] increases by several hundred," he said.

Harford citizens, he adds, get plenty of quality to go with the quantity.

"Response time for our volunteers is equal to most stations staffed by full-time paid employees anywhere," he said. "And look at the medical support available within 10 to 15 minutes by helicopter -- Johns Hopkins, Shock Trauma, Key Burn Center and the GBMC ear and eye clinics."

If volunteers are the front line of the Emergency Operation Center's team, Chief Terrell is the quarterback. He directs the annual sessions to update each portion of the federally mandated Emergency Operations Plan, which requires the county to plan ahead for any type of disaster.

And if responding to and planning for hurricanes, chemical spills and the like don't keep the center's staff busy enough, they can help the taxpayer in other ways.

When President Clinton declared Maryland's Blizzard of '93 a federal disaster, Chief Terrell's staff waded through drifts of paperwork to file reports and recover more than $500,000 in grant money for the county and municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

Again, it's simple long division.

If no one had cared to file the paperwork, each countian would have paid an extra $2.60 for emergency service during that one storm.

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