Concerned that volunteer fire support services are being stretched too thin, Harford County is looking to hire paid, part-time emergency medical responders to supplement its volunteer force.
By next year, officials hope to establish a foundation that will contract paid emergency medical technicians, to be drawn from a pool as needed.
The county's slow-growing volunteer force has suffered under the weight of an increasing call volume over the past 15 years, with most calls considered non-emergency.
"It's about being responsible to the citizens we serve," said Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for the Harford County Volunteer Fire EMS Association. "They deserve to get the best service possible, and if it means having to pay people now, then so be it."
This year, Harford is on pace to receive more 911 calls for fire and medical emergencies than the 29,000 fielded in 2004. The total number of 911 calls - which includes calls for police assistance - have more than doubled since 1993.
That includes calls from residents wanting to get a pillow fluffed or having a bug in their ear, Gardiner said, which stretches response time for true emergencies.
"Residents don't understand the volume of stress on these volunteers," he said.
Many volunteers work in neighboring jurisdictions, such as Baltimore and Baltimore County, as emergency service personnel and pick up shifts when they are available.
Rapid population growth has strained services in other traditionally rural areas, such as Carroll County, where county officials began replacing volunteer emergency medical technicians six years ago, a step that experts said is often a stopgap in the transition to a professional fire department. Carroll spends $11 million on full-time emergency medical technicians, paramedics and other fire support services to supplement their volunteers.
County Executive David R. Craig said Harford will retain a predominantly volunteer fire and EMT service. But a transition over the next 10 years toward more part-time, paid workers is necessary, particularly in Bel Air and Abingdon, areas where the populations have "exploded," he said.
"We're stretching the rubber band too much," Craig said. "These people have families and lives."
For years, local governments have offered retention incentives for volunteers. The Bel Air government has offered residential tax incentives to volunteers who live within the town limits, and the state offers mileage incentives in addition to a $3,500 tax credit per volunteer
Municipalities, such as Aberdeen and the town of Bel Air, also have been paying professionals to support the volunteer emergency medical service providers when they are not available.
Officials are quick to praise the county's fire and medical volunteers. State Deputy Fire Marshal Faron Taylor said Carroll and Harford are "shining examples" of volunteer firefighting "that are working well."
"The system of training is the same high level of professionalism for both career and volunteer firefighters," Taylor said.
Funding for the foundation, which has its own board of directors, will come from two sources. Money from companies the emergency medical services contract will pay the hourly wages for the paramedics, and the county is contributing about $500,000 a year for the foundation's administrative costs.
Prospective emergency workers will go through background checks, physicals and skills assessments before they are hired. They will receive no benefits and will be paid by the hour based on their certification level.
Another necessary component, Gardiner said, will be educating the public on what constitutes an emergency and when to call for emergency services.
With more residential and commercial construction, more senior housing and more transient traffic, the call volume will continue to increase, Gardiner said.
That's not taking into account the thousands of jobs - more than 20,000 by some estimates - set to land in the county over the next two to six years as Aberdeen Proving Ground is expanded as part of a national base-consolidation plan.