Days after Harford County Executive David Craig called a press conference to lambast opposition by top local fire and EMS officials to his bill creating an advisory commission on their operations, those same fire officials defended their stance, saying the commission needs more members with local roots.
Meanwhile, in a radio appearance the same morning, Craig said he would unveil a new measure on Tuesday meant to replace the withdrawn law and provide greater accountability of the fire and EMS companies. Bill Dousa, president of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, said he believes that measure may be the appointment of a cabinet-level fire commissioner.
Dousa the group did not seek a political firefight with Craig, but were repeatedly denied access to the results of a comprehensive study of the county’s fire and EMS capabilities, and wanted to have significant input into the composition of the commission.
“We’re not against change,” Dousa said in an interview at the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company’s headquarters Friday. “We just want it done right.”
The association is comprised of the 12 fire and EMS companies which service Harford County, and has wide control over their operations, training standards, and recruitment efforts. It is the successor to several previous groups, including The Harford County Fire Chiefs Association, and The Association of the Volunteer Fire and Emergency Medical Services of Harford County Inc.
The companies themselves receive a large chunk of their annual funding from the county, a figure Craig put at $10 million per year. He said the amount of each company’s budget which is received from the county varies, and ranges between 50 and 80 percent.
The current disagreement has its roots in a study of the county’s fire and EMS services conducted in 2008 and 2009. The study was conducted by an independent firm, Carroll Buracker and Associates Inc., but Dousa said the association assisted in an “unofficial” capacity, providing the scope of work for the study.
After its completion, Dousa said the association sought to review the final draft of the study.
“That didn’t happen,” Dousa said. “We went to David Craig, and it [the study] sat on his desk for a year,” despite repeated requests from the association to view it prior to its public release.
The study included 139 recommendations, both broad and specific. “We didn’t agree with all recommendations,” Dousa said, “But we don’t disagree with them either.” Since the report’s release, Dousa said the association found only 102 of the recommendations fall under their direct control, and said the group has worked to meet 15 of them.
While the study called for the county to “enhance the role of the [association] by providing it with clear lead responsibility for the Fire and EMS Services,” it also urged the county to create a “Fire and Emergency Services Commission” which would monitor and implement the other recommendations and continue to monitor the fire companies’ performance.
Craig created just such a commission by executive order last year, and submitted a bill to the county council earlier this year to officially legislate the committee’s permanent existence.
The composition of the 17-member committee became an issue early on, with the fire companies saying they sought individuals knowledgeable with the local emergency response process. Dousa expressed concern over some of the individuals tapped for the committee, including its possible chair, Les Adams, a Montgomery County native.
Dousa said the need for local input has become evident in the meetings the commission has held since its creation.
“We go and listen,” he said. “Very, very seldom we’re asked to contribute something. But it’s obvious from our listening that some people on the commission don’t understand Harford County operations.”
Dousa added that the association seeks greater balance among the members of the commission, pointing out that while two individuals from the Level Volunteer Fire Company sit on the current, executive-created commission, the much larger Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company is not represented.
He said the association “red-lined” a copy of Craig’s proposed bill to make the commission permanent, but was not made aware when the bill was submitted for council review.
Appearing on WAMD 970 AM’s morning show, “The Harford Edge,” Friday morning, Craig contradicted those claims, saying the association had multiple chances to weigh in during the bill’s creation, and sought greater and greater control of the commission’s makeup.
“They wanted it to be that there were names out there, and I had to pick them,” he said, adding that the commission would oversee more than just the fire and EMS companies, including countywide emergency operations and other areas.
“Really the commission is more than just the fire and ems association, because it would be redundant,” he said.
Craig added that financial oversight of the association’s membership was reasonable, given the amount of county money they receive.
“We do that for everybody, we do that for the humane society,” he said. “Anybody who gets grant money from county government, you have to have that.”
However, Dousa pointed out that a large portion of the fire and EMS companies’ annual budget comes from other sources, including donations and contributions by the public, and questioned whether a county commission should have financial control of money given directly to a fire company by citizens.
In his radio appearance, Craig said he would unveil a new approach to the issue on Tuesday. Asked to specify what that approach might be, he said only that it would fall under his powers as county executive.
“We’re looking at the initial policy when I established the commission, and revising that, and doing it on the executive side, it will not be legislative,” he said. “In other words, it will not be legislation.”
Dousa said he believes Craig intends to appoint a fire commissioner, likely a cabinet-level post. However, it is unclear what powers that individual would wield, beyond serving in an advisory capacity to Craig.
Dousa stopped short of speculating on whether Craig’s advocacy of the issue served higher political aspirations, but pointed out the electoral power wielded by the county’s volunteer fire and EMS companies.
“This was inflammatory with the other chiefs,” he said. “He’s attacked not just the association leadership, but the chiefs of the companies. They are the voting block, their families are the voting block, their friends are the voting block.”