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Harford's public safety commission begins to evaluate fire, EMS services in county

The Harford County Public Safety Commission, in its permanent form, has finally begun meeting after a contentious argument over its existence earlier this year, when local fire companies opposed its creation.

The monthly meeting of 13 members on Thursday at the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company was much more peaceful than the heated legislative meetings in earlier months, when County Executive David Craig was trying to give the panel more permanence to evaluate fire company response and other issues, such as retraining requirements for longtime fire and EMS service members.

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The county's Volunteer Fire & EMS Association came out against giving the commission an expanded role, and the Harford County Council then voted against legislation sponsored by the county executive, it turn prompting Craig to authorize the creation of the commission by an executive order, not legally subject to council review.

Harford's 12 volunteer fire and ambulance companies are private organizations, but each receives varying amounts of annual financial support from the county for equipment, operations and facilities. Craig has sought to require more accountability from the fire companies, both financial and operational, and some leaders of the fire service have balked at ceding control to the county.

The commission had already been meeting for a year before the council-executive controversy erupted, as part of the previous fire and EMS study performed by the county, although its mission was not as well defined until Craig's legislation and ensuing executive order were issued.

Thursday's meeting was the third the panel has held since the executive order took effect. It also met once in June and once in July.

Subcommittees have been tasked with several goals, and chairman Tony Bennett, of Famous & Spang Insurance Company in Aberdeen, brought up his concerns at Thursday's meeting about how the group should function.

One of those concerns is communication with the county and other stakeholders, like the association, which Bennett said has been an issue over the past year.

"We weren't always sure how those recommendations and discussions were being heard and utilized at the county level," he said. "One of the things that the administration has agreed to do going forward is to meet with the leadership of the commission on a monthly basis."

Bennett said he hopes to get more feedback on whether the county administration plans to accept commission recommendations.

He said he has met with county Director of Administration Mary Chance, who is responsible for overseeing the county's emergency operations, and wants to avoid controversies from becoming "festering points," like they have in the past.

"If we're going to improve the system, we need to understand what one another is talking about," he said.

Bennett also said he plans to get bullet-point meeting minutes to committee members and other stakeholders right away, because the goal of the monthly meetings now is to avoid a future breakdown in communication.

"Right now when we make a recommendation, we don't know where it's going," he said.

Other potentially "prickly" areas include revisiting the territories of the 12 fire and EMS companies, in light of new stations that have been opened in recent years, and whether training for EMS volunteers should be grandfathered, as new training methods and requirements develop.

Bennett explained after the meeting that the issue is whether firefighters who underwent training a long time ago should go through more up-to-date training, which can be challenging to acquire and could require travel outside the county to get it.

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The commission declined to vote on the grandfathering issue at its July meeting, and the earlier fire study had recommended against grandfathering.

Timothy Chizmar, of Upper Chesapeake Health System, which runs the county's two hospital emergency rooms, said he is concerned that some EMS chiefs at the privately run fire volunteer fire companies are very hard to reach and said he wants more accountability for working with the county and state.

"I think the state is very frustrated with our 12-silo approach to EMS," he said.

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