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Vigliotti: Support for Carroll’s new Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services | COMMENTARY

Last week, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, led by Commissioner Stephen Wantz, moved unanimously to create the Carroll County Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. This was an important move by the commissioners for the residents of Carroll; and was done at the encouraging of members of the fire companies themselves who seek a way forward in an uncertain future.

Firefighting has formed an inseparable part of American history, from the homely (neighbors assembling themselves to battle blazes) to the heroic (firefighters rushing into the burning World Trade Center on 9/11, or traveling to other states and nations to assist in fire control efforts).

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A recent study conducted by the National Volunteer Fire Council found that the overall number of firefighters in the United States has declined by more than 55,000 since 1983; and the number of volunteer firefighters has staggeringly declined by more than 200,000. All the while, population, rate of calls, and areas of service have increased. For rural and other places hard-pressed or unable to find funding for emergency services, this is especially serious.

Meanwhile, the costs for volunteers are unending: the price of living, constant dangers of the job, and the time it requires away from loved ones, home, and work — not to mention the price of equipment, vehicles, maintenance and upkeep, supplies, training, and more. But what about communities who rely on volunteer fire companies, and do not have the means to fund them — particularly in more rural areas?

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Fire companies, like those in Carroll, rely on summer carnivals and fundraisers for their lifeblood to sustain them through the year. A single rained-out night, let alone a pandemic, are serious threats.

To ensure the survival of the companies in Carroll, the present and previous boards of commissioners began the process that would lead to the creation of the new department.

“The critical need of finding folks who want to run into burning buildings, while all others run out, for free as a volunteer, is steering this ship,” Wantz, who himself has long personally been involved with fire and emergency response, explained. “Over the last several years our fire departments have been struggling to find not only firefighters, but emergency medical providers.” Companies have also faced the added challenge of filling in positions such as human resources, payroll, and insurance, among others.

As such, according to a news release, the new department, under inaugural Director Robert McCoy, has been “charged with the overall direction, administration and evaluation of the newly established Department ... and will plan, develop, implement and evaluate a county-wide combination fire and EMS system, policies and procedures.” It is important to note that McCoy has previous experience with combination systems.

“The key word here is ‘combination,’” Wantz noted of the department’s dual career and volunteer nature, with “the surgical infusion of career personnel” designed to help sustain Carroll’s fourteen companies, of which thirteen are already paying some personnel. Still, Wantz explained, “everyone involved is adamant about ensuring that the volunteer part of this never goes away. We are, and will continue to strongly encourage folks to volunteer.”

Wantz also acknowledged that there will be challenges in such a system, but is confident in the end result. He underscored the importance of communication to me, applauding those who have come forward with concerns, questions, and suggestions, including Bruce Fleming, president of CCVESA, who in a recent Carroll County Times article mentioned wanting to see things like rights and responsibilities laid out. Working together in this fashion “will ensure we get this right,” Wantz elaborated.

Indeed, the sense of openness regarding input about the department that Wantz has expressed will be important. Wantz further explained that an “Emergency Services Advisory Committee is also being put together to include members of CCVESA, county personnel and citizens at large, with no ties to any fire department, to oversee the process.”

The volunteer companies, along with Wantz, and other commissioners past and present, recognize the serious danger Carroll is facing with the decline of volunteerism. A generational shift in cultural beliefs and community traditions, as well as issues like funding, contribute to that decline. But the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services offers a viable path forward through its lending of assistance to Carroll’s volunteers, while seeking to ensure they retain independence.

As things unfold for the department, one of the most important subjects that should be considered and routinely revisited between all parties involved, is the issue of attracting new volunteers. Carroll’s residents, too, can play a part in ensuring the survival of our companies, by making sure to support their work in both word and deed, such as participating in fundraisers.

“We will guard against pushing volunteers away,” Wantz affirmed. “Our fire departments are critically important to our county. In most instances they are the hubs of the communities in which they are located and are essential to our Carroll heritage. As a result, we must never allow them to disappear.”

Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.

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