Friday, March 30, 2007

Keep fire district scandal in context

There are always a few bad apples.

That's should be the take-away from the arrests last week of fire district officials in surrounding areas.

Because there are inevitably people motivated by self-interest and greed in every walk of life, there must be adequate safeguards to ensure that the bad apples don't have the opportunity to do what people like that will do if there aren't adequate safeguards: play the system for their own personal gain, or even steal.

The combination of a lack of safeguards and access to a lot of money is a very dangerous combination indeed. People who are so inclined can't resist temptation.

Every organization that, directly or indirectly, receives public funding or has nonprofit status and solicits contributions for civic or charitable purposes must adhere to rules that protect the public trust. And there must be adequate oversight by an independent entity to ensure that those rules are followed.

When those two elements are lacking, there's bound to be trouble. Because there are, after all, always a few bad apples. Witness the school district scandals. And now, according to District Attorney Thomas Spota, we've got similar problems in some of our volunteer fire departments.

What we should not do, however, is assume that all of the people running our local fire departments are up to no good and misusing public funds. And we should not make the burdens of oversight so onerous that we discourage volunteerism in local emergency services.

In other words, don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

It's tempting to do just that. But it's wrong.

Volunteer firefighters and EMTs are sacrificing their time and energy — sometimes their health and even their lives — to serve their communities. They are the people who run to, not away from, a catastrophe as it unfolds. They get up in the middle of the night to answer their neighbor's call for help. They rush into burning buildings, putting their own lives on the line, to rescue others. They put others ahead of themselves. They do it because they care.

Let's not forget that, in spite of the sensational headlines and TV-news hype surrounding the arrest of a handful of emergency services volunteers who allegedly abused the public trust.

I'm not a volunteer firefighter, nor is my husband. I used to think I'd someday volunteer for my local ambulance district. But life got in the way. I have young children. I work full-time. I have all I can do to keep up with my life as it is. I can't imagine finding time to complete all the training required of emergency service volunteers; there's lots of it — hours and hours worth of training. Never mind the meetings. And the calls — during dinner with your family, or in the middle of a blizzard, or at 2:30 in the morning.

So the passing thoughts I've had about serving my community as an emergency service volunteer have remained just that: passing thoughts. But because others find a way to make the time and the sacrifices, I can rest comfortably at night, knowing that if my family has an emergency, we can pick up the phone, dial 911, and within minutes, help will arrive.

That's a situation I've been in more than once. Time passes in excruciating slow motion from the moment you make that frantic call till the moment the ambulance pulls into your driveway. Those are the longest five or 10 minutes of your life, waiting for help to arrive to try to save the life of your father-in-law in cardiac arrest, or your mother, gasping for air because of a post-operative pulmonary embolism. The relief and gratitude you feel when the EMTs rush through the door and go to work — cool, calm, trained professionals — is something I can't quite find words to describe.

The men and women who answer those calls, the volunteers who serve our local fire departments and ambulance districts, deserve our gratitude, respect and support.

They are heroes. My heroes. Your heroes. Our community's heroes.

Let's not forget that.