When millions of gallons of water erupted in mid-September from a ruptured 72-inch water main flooding dozens of Dundalk homes, Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith got help quickly from state and local officials all over Central Maryland.

"You need everybody in these situations," he said Tuesday, standing between large utility vehicles in a Howard County public works yard with county executives Ken Ulman, Anne Arundel's John R. Leopold, and Harford's David Craig.

With a written agreement among the four county executives who represent about a quarter of Maryland's population, help will be automatic and fast when water or wastewater pipes fail. Best of all, the agreement costs the participants nothing.

The initiative is called MD WARN, which stands for Maryland Water Agency Response Network, and it's part of a national effort to lay the legal and logistical groundwork ahead of any disaster, whether it is the failure of one water pipe or a Katrina-sized hurricane.

"All the legal issues are put in place," said Steve Gerwin, Howard's chief of utilities. "Now, instead of sharing resources and holding your breath, everything is in place." Problems of liability if equipment is lost or damaged, for example, will be resolved according to clear methods arranged in advance.

"There's a lot of talk about regionalism, but this puts regionalism on the map," said Leopold. Craig pointed out that the agreement also covers the towns of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace in his county.

James Irvin, Howard's public works director, explained that his utility workers have developed some specialized expertise in manually inspecting suspect sewer pipes before they break - a skill used to help Baltimore County after the Dundalk disaster. That expertise stemmed from the earlier failure of a major water main in southwestern Baltimore County that moves water into Howard. Baltimore City owns the metropolitan water system, but counties help maintain it.

David Ball III, 45, a 16-year utility worker in Howard County, said he is one of the people who go into the pipes to repair or inspect them, and he heartily approved of the agreement. Often, Howard has fewer problems than neighboring Baltimore County, he said.

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