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Distribution of smoke alarms but one valuable service provided [Editorial]

In the discussions about the status of Harford County's fire and ambulance service, it will be vital to keep in mind that many aspects of the existing system are exemplary.

A case in point is the effort two Saturdays ago on the part of members of Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company that resulted in the installation of 123 new smoke alarms in Edgewood's Edgewater Village neighborhood at a rough cost to taxpayers of $2,000.

During a two-hour period, 36 fire company members visited 234 homes and found 123 in need of smoke alarms. Presuming an hourly rate of $10 an hour for paid firefighters to perform the same task (and $20 an hour is probably a more realistic figure), the volunteers saved the county a bare minimum of $720 (though it's probably more like $1,440).

Of course, that savings presumes such an effort would have been undertaken at all without a volunteer service to provide the personnel. It's presumed smoke alarms are lifesaving devices, and state law requires they be installed in homes. In addition, a 2013 update to the law requires a new kind of smoke alarm equipped with batteries good for 10 years be installed in new and renovated homes.

Getting working smoke alarms in every home, however, is a challenge. Not everyone is willing to spend the money, and enforcement isn't realistic. Thus, campaigns that involve distributing smoke alarms, especially in neighborhoods where homes were built before smoke detectors were required and especially in economically depressed neighborhoods, is as good a way of getting cheap, simple lifesaving technology into places where it can do some good.

Though the technology is cheap, the personnel costs of conducting such campaigns isn't. The number of residences in Harford County is in the tens of thousands, and extrapolating 234 houses checked using 72 personnel hours to checking a few thousand homes shows the scale of the task at hand.

The volunteer companies in Harford County, from time to time, have engaged in smoke alarm distribution efforts, which help to make the county a little safer.

Were such an effort to be undertaken by a government entity, likely as not, it would involve establishing an Office of Smoke Alarm Distribution, with a director and full-time staff.

Thanks to the volunteer fire and ambulance service, costs like these can be avoided. There are many other public safety functions the fire and ambulance service provides in equally exemplary fashion – to include putting out fires and rescuing people – and as the county government becomes more involved with the coordination of fire and ambulance service, the preservation of the civic tradition of providing such a valuable public service needs to be given high priority.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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