Tradition of service

November 17, 2011

After years of fighting the oversight, the not-for-profit fire and ambulance companies that serve Harford County have finally agreed to join the modern world of financial accountability.

All 12 of the organizations, most of which have the word volunteer in their official names, have signed on to an agreement that will allow the county to have access to financial records and require bonding of members of the leadership.

The most likely result of all this is a finding that the fire and ambulance companies that have proudly provided a frontline of public safety services to Harford County are operating on the level. Sure, there's a chance some financial tomfoolery will be uncovered, or some weak accounting techniques will be found, and probably corrected.

On the whole, though, the local fire and ambulance service was founded on a tradition of volunteerism and community service, and grifters aren't attracted to such organizations.

Still, it has become increasingly imperative in recent years that the local fire and ambulance services open their books to public scrutiny or perish. The simple truth is a modern not-for-profit fire service like the coalition of companies that serve Harford County cannot survive without substantial government financing. There just aren't enough carnivals, bake sales and bingo games to pay for the amount of fire and life support equipment that's on 24-hour call in Harford County.

Furthermore, the kind of training firefighters and ambulance crews are obliged to take is rather extensive and precludes having much time left over for calling bingo or selling cookies. These organizations are not bucket brigades, but professional in every aspect other than most of those who turn out when the alarm sounds are not paid.

It is entirely likely that the one aspect of the service that involves paying emergency responders is what finally tipped the balance and forced the county's long-reluctant hand to require financial disclosure. The change in question: Some members of the ambulance crews dispatched through the local emergency service are paid through a coalition of fire and ambulance companies, known as the county's Fire and EMS Foundation, or simply as the foundation.

The county pays into the foundation, which then organizes and pays crews to work the busy shifts when volunteers are scarce.

In all, the local fire and ambulance service receives well in excess of $10 million a year from the county government to pay for ambulance crews, equipment and operations, as well as for building construction and maintenance.

It's not a huge percentage of the county's budget, which runs in excess of $400 million, but it's still a lot of public money being paid into private organizations and the county has an obligation to check to make sure the money is being well spent. Failure on the part of the fire and ambulance companies to recognize this obligation would be the fiscal equal of failing to train ambulance crews in modern emergency medical techniques or to train firefighters how to deal with hazardous chemicals they're likely to run across at the scene of traffic accidents. In other words, it would eventually have meant the end of the private, not-for-profit service with its proud volunteer heritage.

This loss, in turn, would mean the county would end up being obliged to spend many times what it does now for government-staffed fire and ambulance service, a service that probably wouldn't be nearly as good as what's in place today.

The move to allow public scrutiny of fire house finances puts the local fire and ambulance service on track to continue for years to come a fine tradition of community service that is generations old.

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