Essential service, big cost [Editorial]

The Aegis

In the ongoing the debate over how to best operate fire and EMS services in Harford County, the non-human factor often gets overlooked or put well behind the question about who should be doing what and, ultimately, if they should be paid for their services.

Historically, the belief is the county could not replace its volunteer companies with a paid fire and EMS service without imposing a significant tax increase on residents. That theory is gradually being put to the test by the conversion of the emergency medical service personnel to paid employees, either of the private fire companies or county government or combination thereof. In fact, we have reached the point where it appears most of the men and women going out on EMS calls are being paid, and volunteers with the requisite training and certification are becoming a smaller and smaller minority.

Meanwhile, the privately owned and operated fire companies have been lamenting that it is difficult to find new volunteers to man their stations and equipment, as their older volunteers age and leave the service or become inactive. Some have warned there may not be enough volunteer personnel to protect the county and, as most residents should know by now, a good number of the Harford volunteers do in fact take home paychecks from paid fire companies in other jurisdictions. What if that could no longer happen?

Beyond personnel, however, there’s a significant cost involved in buying and maintaining firefighting apparatus and the facilities used to house the equipment and to serve as the centers for each fire company’s operations.

Harford County taxpayers do in fact contribute to those costs directly to the tune of between $6 million and $7 million annually — spread among the 12 volunteer fire and EMS companies, and the county government also helps with the cost of renovating and expanding fire stations, as it is doing with the Joppa-Magnolia Company’s Fort Hanson Station in Edgewood.

But in an age when a fire truck goes for hundreds of thousands of dollars to approaching $1 million for a ladder truck with tiller, and even a relatively simple renovation like that taking place at Fort Hanson goes for half a million dollars, there’s a huge capital investment that is still being made primarily by the fire companies themselves.

In Friday’s editions of The Aegis and The Record, we reported that the Aberdeen Fire Department plans to spend some $7 million to renovate and expand its main fire station on North Rogers Street, a project that is expected to begin early next year will take 14 to 18 months to complete, according to John Bender, Aberdeen Fire Department vice president and building committee chair.

“The building just doesn’t work for us anymore. We need to provide better living spaces for our members and our live-in medic crews,” Bender said. “We want to improve the operation of our station, make it a lot more efficient to today’s standards.”

The building, 23,000 square feet, was constructed in 1972 and the systems are failing and need to be replaced, Bender said.

“We’re committed to providing a first-class facility for the community so we can continue to provide first class service for the next 25 to 30 years, at least,” he said.

And all that will come at a cost somebody has to bear, mostly through fundraising and donations, plus county and municipal government contributions.

Some day, maybe, the volunteer versus paid (and county run) debate will be settled. Regardless, the expense of providing essential firefighting services will continue, and so will the need for them in Harford County.

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