Minnich: What became of the slow lane? What once was adequate can no longer meet growing population's needs

It was apparent long before this year’s budget talks that Carroll County was going to have to stop counting on volunteer fire companies to provide for local needs.

It’s no disrespect to the history of community volunteers to acknowledge that what once was adequate can no longer meet the needs of growing populations. The demands on time and available manpower set by increasingly stringent standards of training and preparation, the complexities of new technology, and the expectations of today’s public demand changes.


Older residents remember when the volunteers were the hub and the wheel of community. Towns and villages like Manchester were served by churches, the fire company and the “Ladies’ Auxiliary” and the Lions Club. Every family had a member who was a member of one or more of the above, and then perhaps the PTA as well.

The fire hall was the place where movies were shown Friday and Saturday nights, dinners were served to raise operating funds and help victims of fire or other disasters.

Training was the responsibility of the senior members of the company. New members came from the ranks of the kids who had grown up with the Friday night movies and the traditions of community service. It was an honor to serve, to wear the uniform for formal events like the annual parades in town and nearby communities, and to help out at the summer carnival.

It could be said that the fire company was even a big part of romance; the carnival provided the perfect setting for a young man and woman to walk along and talk, brush hands, then hold hands, then — bingo.

Such an attractive picture of small-town life where people can meet neighbors and enjoy a night of cotton candy and Ferris wheel rides in safe neighborhoods attracts new residents. More people bring more houses, more errant barbecue and wood stove fires, more ambulance runs to sports accidents and transports to the hospitals.

And more cars on roads that were once two gravel lanes, village to mill to farm to church.

For the emergency services workers, what used to take a few hours a week now requires 24-7 coverage of personnel whose day jobs might have been on a farm or the local grocery story. Medics once trained in-house by older, experienced volunteers are now investing hundreds of hours in specialized training on- and off-site. Volunteers and professionals are taken away from both jobs and families in great chunks of time that most of us never stop to appreciate.

What they have to know is commensurate with the risks they face from new sources of toxins. Once, smoke or a fire turned on a shifting wind were the concerns. Today, gases and poisons never considered in granddad’s day pose a threat on any given callout.

Ambulance services were once shared; a term used for the early ambulance service was, “Swoop and scoop.”

The unit that arrives after a call today is a rolling MASH unit, and the people staffing it are trained to communicate with the hospital and begin procedures that once had to wait until the arrival at the medical facility.

Much of the emergency work is the result of increased traffic on routes that over the past 60 years have become commuter corridors from the north through the county and on to the metro sprawl to the south and west.

One-lane roads became two, two-lane roads went to four, and now they’re talking about six lanes or more on parts of Md. 26, which in my lifetime ran from Frederick County through Eldersburg and Randallstown to the Baltimore city limits with only one traffic signal. Route 140 could be eight or 10 lanes wide in places to handle rush hours.

The slow lane is gone.

It’s called progress. Or growth. Or sprawl. It costs money.