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Harford fire, EMS service needs fixing [Editorial]

Editorial from The Aegis

8:54 PM EDT, May 16, 2013

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Harford County's fire and EMS service is a mess.

As one Old-Timer used to say, "Rome wasn't built in a day." Nor was the mess that fire and EMS service has become.

Let's get this straight before we go any further: This is not an attack on the men and women who have dedicated their lives to helping their fellow Harford County residents at their times of greatest need. The service they continue to provide in the face of daunting challenges is terrific. Some of our colleagues, family members, friends and neighbors are and have been volunteers in the fire and EMS service. All of us in Harford County are blessed to have them responding when they call.

Our beef is with how the service is organized and how it needs to be organized moving forward.

It's painfully clear to those who have been around awhile that Harford County changed so much and grew so much over the last few decades that it stretched the limits of its all-volunteer fire and ambulance service.

The number of new/additional members wasn't keeping up with the exponential growth in the number of calls, especially for ambulance service.

Complicating matters was the incomprehensible advances in medicine and the demands those changes put on volunteers. It was no longer acceptable to race to the scene in an ambulance, throw a patient on a stretcher and race them off to Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace or to a lesser degree Fallston General Hospital and, in the past decade, Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

Just tossing them on a gurney is a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. EMS people save lives. And it takes continuous training to update EMS personnel on medical practices and procedures. Training takes time. Volunteers don't have as much of it as they once did.

In an effort to ease the burden on volunteers and to not frighten off those who might be thinking of becoming a volunteer, the Harford EMS service started paying some people to cover calls during the times when the fewest volunteers were available.

The public safety service was in a bit of a downward mode before some of those providing service became paid. That spiral has continued and picked up speed.

The latest has been the addition of union activity to the mix. Where there's a union at work, there are sure to be lawyers. And where there are lawyers in the midst of what had been a volunteer organization, that's not good.

Last week's report Harford County's fire and EMS union was seeking the dismissal of some that the union leaders believed haven't joined the union isn't the point here. That's a multi-faceted subject full of nuances that can and will be debated in the future.

The point is that Harford County's fire and EMS service has landed in a complicated, tangled heap and it's a mess in dire need of everyone's attention now.

There's no doubt about that, there's no way around it and there's no way, short of being reckless, to delay addressing it in meaningful ways.