Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better

October 23, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- A visitor to our farm had a nasty fall the other day, and when it became clear that she was going to need something more than a helping hand to get back on her feet, we naturally dialed 911.

The ambulance from the Level Volunteer Fire Department a couple of miles down the road was there in minutes. It was staffed by Jenny Blakeley, a college student who wants to be a veterinarian; Eric Polk, who works for the Havre de Grace city government; Russell Gallion Jr., who works on his family's farm; and Alan Rudd, a construction worker.

The all-volunteer crew handled the situation with the kind of calm professionalism that at once inspires confidence, and within a very few minutes the bruised visitor was off to Harford Memorial Hospital.

Such a fast, skilled response to an emergency isn't a surprise -- not in Maryland and not in most other states. It's the norm. Whatever our national problems with health care overall may be, if you're going to fall down and hurt yourself in the United States, you're going to get remarkably prompt medical attention. That's true whether you live in the city or the country, or whether you're rich or poor.

Governments like to take credit for this, and up to a point they're entitled to. In the cities and the big suburbs emergency services are fully supported by taxes, and even in the countryside, where the volunteer tradition still prevails, government at various levels plays a significant role.

Our call to 911 was handled by a county employee at Harford County's round-the-clock emergency communications system in Hickory, then relayed to Level. The well-equipped ambulance that was dispatched was not a government vehicle; it was purchased with privately-raised money and staffed by volunteers. But although Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer didn't directly underwrite this service, they made various indirect contributions.

While volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians donate their time -- hundreds of hours a year in some cases -- public funds help pay for their training. The volunteers also can, and do, call on sophisticated state services to back them up. If the accident on our place this week had been more serious, a state Medevac helicopter might have been dispatched to airlift the victim to a special trauma center.

What this routine accident clearly demonstrates, though, is that successful systems for dealing with emergencies are built from the bottom up and not from the top down. Most of the volunteer fire and ambulance companies in Maryland could provide decent support for their communities with no government contribution at all. But if the state and county governments tried to replace the volunteers with paid employees, the tax burden would soar and the vital spirit of community participation would wane.

Volunteer fire companies are the most visible vestige of the frayed old principle that the best communities are the ones that can identify and deal with their own problems, rather than relying on help from outside. The size of the community doesn't necessarily determine that, but it can be a factor.

Experience shows that when a rural community grows beyond a certain point, especially if the growth changes its nature so that most of the residents no longer work nearby, a couple of things are likely to happen. First, the local volunteer fire company will find itself with more property to protect and fewer people to do the protecting. And then, very gradually, the awareness begins to dawn that what was once a cohesive community has now become something different, something less personal, less independent and less self-reliant.

Level doesn't have a government, or specific boundaries that say where it begins and where it ends, or a tax rate. But it's still a genuine community. That's why service with the fire company is still considered not only a duty but a privilege, and why when there is a campaign for a new piece of equipment the response is so broad and so generous.

Not so many years ago, it was normal for small American communities to take on responsibility not just for fire protection and ambulance service, but for their schools, their law enforcement, and their social services. It wasn't a perfect system, but it worked reasonably well, and the stronger the community the better it worked.

No more, though. Schools, law enforcement and social services are now nominally handled at the county level, with the state and federal governments exercising ever more influence. This has been brought about partly by the increased complexity of

modern society, and partly by the inexorable tendency of large ++ governments to usurp the authority of smaller ones.

One day, perhaps, in semi-rural places like Level, there will no longer be a role for a volunteer fire company. Paid professionals will staff the ambulances and the cost will be shared by all the taxpayers in some much larger region. Residents will still be able to dial 911 and get an ambulance when they need one, and the equipment and technology may be even better than today's. Everything will be modern and sophisticated, but some of us will find it hard to call it progress.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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