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Editorial: The iron is hot

Just that Harford County is in the business of hiring a director of emergency operations is an indication that change is needed in the county's fire and ambulance service.

First, there's the matter of the short tenure of the departing director, Brian Feist, who is leaving after 19 months in office. Regardless of the reason for the departure - in this case Feist is pursuing a business opportunity in Pennsylvania - two changes in leadership in a large, multifaceted public safety department are apt to result in a level of disarray that needs to be carefully and calmly put back in good order.

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The bigger issue, however, is the role of the Department of Emergency Operations. It's primary function is to operate the Harford County 911 dispatch center and, to a lesser degree, facilitate the coordination of fire, rescue and ambulance services.

Dispatchers at the 911 center are responsible for deciding if an emergency call warrants sending police, firefighters, ambulance crews, and at what level. They're further responsible for getting vital information from callers in stressful situations and, in some cases, talking them through routine lifesaving techniques over the phone.

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This requires a high level of training, and the job isn't 9 to 5; enough dispatchers need to be on hand to deal with emergencies, which can happen at any hour.

Then there's the matter of the number and variety of organizations dispatchers deal with. On the police side, among those assigned calls are: Maryland State Police working out of several barracks, the Harford County Sheriff's Office, the Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments as well as agencies such as Amtrak Police, Maryland Natural Resources Police and, from time to time, theU.S. Coast Guard, among others.

In terms of fire and rescue operations, Harford County is served by a strong and well-trained volunteer service that is sometimes lacking in its public demeanor. The various volunteer fire and ambulance companies, it's also worth noting, are organized as independent, private clubs and, though they receive substantial county funding, haven't been subject to much in the way of fiscal oversight.

Another issue is the staffing of the Emergency Operations Center. A substantial number of the people employed by the county agency also are members of various volunteer fire and ambulance companies.

And there's the major issue of the county's ambulance service. For years, it was strictly volunteer, just like the fire and rescue end of the operation. Over the past decade, various compensation methods have been tried by individual fire companies, amalgams of fire companies and the county as a whole. None of what has been tried to date — essentially different versions of a combined paid-volunteer ambulance service — has been regarded as particularly successful.

That's not to say there's an immediate threat to public safety, but the lack of sustainability of what's been in place is disturbing.

It's been increasingly clear in recent years that a strong core ambulance service, probably with a large paid component, needs to be coordinated. Efforts to coordinate such a service through the existing independent volunteer and fire services have proven to be exercises in herding cats.

At a press conference during which Russell Strickland's hire was announced, this latter issue of having the Department of Emergency Operations director, or one of his direct reports, serve as a sort of de facto Harford County fire chief responsible for policy coordination, was brushed away, at least for the next few months.

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Such a function being taken over by the county government's emergency operations department, however, could be in the county's "mid-distant future," so said Harford County Executive David R. Craig during the press conference.

As past efforts to deal with the vital public safety issue of providing reliable, consistent ambulance service have shown, the traditions involved have the potential to become major stumbling blocks.

Putting the problem off too long, however, has a strong potential to result in some sort of unforeseen tragedy. If that happens, the result will no doubt be finger pointing, fighting and the implementation of an ambulance service that is conceived as a reaction to tragedy, not a proactive improvement.

The county government and various volunteer agencies involved would do well to take the opportunity of a new emergency operations manager being hired to devise an ambulance service that is more firmly rooted in reality than what's been devised to date. The longer such a decision is delayed, the greater the potential for an unfortunate outcome all around.


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