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News Maryland Harford County The Aegis Aegis Opinion

Volunteer fire and EMS may have flaws, but training and dedication aren't among them [Editorial]

The effectiveness of the volunteer firefighters who responded earlier this week to the scene of a car fire at a commercial garage in Joppa is exemplary of why it is important for Harford County to try to figure out a way to resolve the funding issues related to providing ambulance service.

It was bad enough that the fire was the result of an automotive gasoline tank that was, according to fire investigators, set ablaze by someone drilling into or near the tank. Putting out a gasoline fire is no easy task and, not only is gasoline flammable like kerosene and plenty of other petroleum products, but it is also potentially explosive. In short, a gasoline fire is dangerous in many more ways than the average fire.

Compounding the situation Monday, tanks of pressurized welding fuel were being stored in a building very close to the three cars that ended up burning. There's no telling what would have happened if the tanks filled with acetylene and oxygen had overheated, but it's safe to say we're better off for having not found out.

Putting out the gasoline fire quickly and preventing the ignition of the welding fuel didn't happen by accident. It happened because of the high level of training and the on-scene professionalism of local volunteer firefighters.

A common lament within the volunteer service is members don't get the level of respect they deserve when people find out they're volunteers. To at least some degree, they're right.

Far too many people who aren't familiar with modern firefighting protocols equate volunteer with amateur, and presume volunteer firefighters constitute little more than a bucket brigade. This mistaken perception couldn't be farther from the truth.

A high level of training is required before firefighters can respond to emergency situations – and the requirement applies to volunteers and employees of paid fire services alike. The difference is the volunteers are paid neither for their training time, nor when they respond to an emergency.

The same is true of ambulance crews. The level of medical training required to administer emergency care doesn't vary, just the level of pay.

The high demand for ambulance service and the high level of training required are the things that have put a significant strain on Harford County's once all volunteer fire and ambulance service. There just haven't been enough of the highly trained ambulance volunteers available to respond to all the emergency medical calls. The result has been a series of experiments with hiring some paid ambulance crews, and unfortunately a formula that both meets the demand and has a level of financial stability has yet to be reached.

Fortunately, the demands on the fire side of the operation have not outstripped the ability of the volunteer system to keep up.

Not only do they keep up, incidents like the one earlier this week in Joppa are evidence that the level of protection is very high and comes at a bargain price in the personnel line item.

Clearly the questions of financing and public oversight of the ambulance service need to be dealt with more efficiently than has been the case to date. To those who have been watching the system for years, it's clear the administration aspect of the volunteer service bears part of the blame for the financial problems that have arisen in recent years.

It's understandable, though, that administrative problems would arise within a volunteer fire and ambulance service. It is, after all, a volunteer emergency response team, not a volunteer administrative and accounting team.

The dedication to the emergency responses is, however, absolutely worth saving and fostering so the service will be around to continue preventing the kinds of disasters like the one that was prevented earlier this week in Joppa.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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