There's long been reason to question the management of Harford County's volunteer fire and ambulance service.

It depends on a substantial annual allocation of taxpayer money and is relied upon to provide a vital public service, yet its decision-making processes have been secretive and often when they become public they appear petty and provincial. These problems increasingly are being pondered by a county government public safety oversight committee, though that committee appears increasingly bogged down in bureaucracy.

Against the backdrop of an organization struggling with various degrees of disorganization and dis-integration, the volunteers of the Harford County volunteer fire and ambulance service have continued to provide a level of professional service money can't buy.

Anyone who needed reminding of the dedication possessed of many members of the various volunteer fire and rescue organizations in Harford County got it earlier this month when word spread of Steve Bittner, a member of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Co. who, while on vacation at the beach in Delaware, helped a lifeguard save a woman from drowning.

Often, it is second nature for people who are trained in lifesaving to act first when confronted with emergency situations and sort out the details later. Certainly this has been the case in the past when off-duty rescue personnel, police or people with first aid or CPR training step to the forefront and, through quick action, help to avert tragedy. On the whole, rescue skills often don't go on vacation, even when the people possessed of them do.

While Mr. Bittner was presumably relaxing and enjoying the balance of his time at the beach and since then, other members of the various fire and rescue organizations around Harford County have been kept busy day and night dealing with an unusual number of house fires, not to mention a fire in an electrical transformer that knocked out power in Forest Hill and surrounding areas.

On the whole, these incidents have been handled as relatively routine – though just about every house fire is potentially deadly and none are routine.

This is a testament both to the level of dedication shown by volunteers and the hours of professional level of training they undergo before being certified to help put out fires.

While the county and the management side of the fire and ambulance service struggle with the issue of paying ambulance personnel, the fire and rescue component of the local emergency service is expected to remain strictly volunteer for the foreseeable future. Similarly, though some of the ambulance personnel are paid, many are not.

Just as revelations made public about the disjointed finances and administrative management structures of the various fire and ambulance companies showed time and again that a more coherent structure is needed, the actions of people like Steve Bittner and the hundreds of other volunteers who show up for every accident, fire and false alarm show there is a level of dedication and commitment in the service that's worth saving.

About that there is no question.