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It's worth making clear right from the start that you'd be hard pressed to find a citizen or public official who doesn't have a high level of respect and admiration for the volunteers of the Harford County fire and ambulance service.

Each year, in the winter and early spring, their contributions are enumerated at awards banquets and the numbers are astonishing. Many respond to hundreds of calls a year and also log hundreds of hours of training. The level of training, by the way, is very high. Fire responders in Harford have training comparable to what is required of paid fire services, and the medical volunteers who go out on ambulance calls are as qualified as many people who work in hospitals and doctors offices.

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While they are volunteers, they are professionals when it comes to fire suppression, rescue techniques and emergency medical services. The volunteers may not be paid, but they are as highly qualified as any of the people employed by the paid fire companies in the region.

Our volunteers are not, however, perfect or superhuman. They are good people doing good deeds and doing them well.

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Unfortunately, the system in which they volunteer in Harford County is flawed. The bottom line is the level of training required to be an emergency medical responder is very high, and the number of people with the dedication and inclination to volunteer for that kind of work just hasn't kept pace with the need for their services.

Going back a few years, to the days before the local fire and ambulance service began dabbling with having paid ambulance crews, the whole system was kept afloat on the backs of a few people of extraordinary dedication and training. As the county grew through the 1970s to the present, it became increasingly clear, however, that the emergency medical service demands of a quarter of a million people couldn't be left to a system in which the lion's share of calls were handled by a dozen or so people, well trained and dedicated as they may be.

In the past few years, a few variations of allowing the volunteer fire and ambulance community to pay ambulance responders have been tried, with some measure of success. A review of top volunteer ambulance responders honored at recent awards banquets shows a marked decrease from the days when a few people in a few key companies were answering on average two to three or more calls a day over the span of a year. Considering that an ambulance call, from start to finish, often ties up a crew of three for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, that's a lot of pressure. These days, the top volunteer responder numbers are lower, which presumably means less pressure on the volunteer component that remains in the ambulance service.

Other aspects of the program, however, have been less successful, notably the financial component. To date, the county has more or less blindly given the fire and ambulance service grants of millions of dollars a year for various projects ranging from the construction of new fire houses to managing the paid component of the local ambulance service.

Is the county getting what the taxpayers are paying for? Unfortunately, there is no good way to tell as the private volunteer fire and ambulance companies have resisted allowing the county see, yet alone have any oversight, of fire company finances.

Then came something of a break point a few weeks ago when the fire and ambulance service came up short on funding to pay ambulance crews and sought extra money from the county.

The result has been a flurry of posturing, feigned taking offense and potentially deadly delaying of action to address the problem.

This is where the matter of dedication and training on the part of the volunteers needs to be separated from the reality that the system needs changing. Something needs to be done about the system, but that doesn't mean the volunteers themselves need to be fixed.

In what has been among the bravest stands taken by a county executive since the inception of the office 40 years ago, County Executive David Craig tried to introduce legislation that would require a relatively high level of county government financial oversight of the fire companies, as long as they receive substantial amounts of county money.

The county council's response was essentially to label the executive anti-volunteer, primarily because there's an element within the volunteer fire and ambulance service that views any dissent or disagreement with the service as being anti-volunteer.

Unfortunately, the volunteer fire and ambulance companies have some financial incentives to resist county oversight, even if they receive millions in taxpayer financial support. They are able collect on ambulance services from insurance companies, even as the uninsured aren't obliged to pay such bills. As most of the fire and ambulance companies are run as single organizations, there's nothing to say ambulance insurance money isn't going to pay for fire equipment. Moreover, some of the individual fire companies are in very good financial positions with multimillion dollar endowment funds, while others manage to barely scrape by.

Presumably, meaningful oversight would translate into uniform financial procedures and segregation of ambulance and fire funds, which would probably mean something different for each of the county's fire and ambulance companies.

If the situation ends up left in the limbo situation where it has been allowed to languish for the past several years, it may be years before the result is anything other than bumps in requests for money from the county and a few hurt feelings here and there. The emergency medical service is already in a state of organizational conflict relative to the paid and volunteer components, and such a conflict could result in the kind of breakdown that no one wants, with the fallout being deaths or serious injuries that could have been prevented.

Craig pulled his legislation last week and on Tuesday announced he was appointing his own 11-member commission by executive order and tasking it with reviewing public safety needs in the county, including government financial support, training, manpower, equipment but not limiting the panel in its scope. He put at least five active fire and/or EMS panel on the commission and several more who have ties to the volunteer programs.

Is this commission the end-all solution? Absolutely not. It does, however, signify that our county executive refuses to bend to pressure and is using everything in his power to drag fire and EMS services in Harford County into the 21st Century. The changes have are long overdue, and the man who has stepped up to champion them is on the right track. It's an effort we all should support because at some point our lives may depend on it.

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