The tough issues facing today's fire/rescue service

January 07, 1997

By Bob Maginnis

Herald-Mail editorial page editor

Was anyone really surprised by Washington County Commissioner John Shank's recent slam at the fire service? After all, this is the same public official who said a few years ago that it didn't take much mental muscle to be a plumber. Readers may also remember Shank's recent puzzlement about why anyone would get upset that, in the midst of a sewer debt crisis necessitating big rate hikes, an ad for one of his housing developments touted the fact that homes there weren't subject to county sewer fees.

If you missed the Jan. 2 story, Shank said that there've been three fires of his property since 1948, and that in every case, the mess the fire service left behind was so expensive to clean up that it would have been better to let everything burn to the ground. Shank also said that he'd rather see money go to rescue companies than the fire units, since fire companies seldom save lives. He later amended his remarks to say that fire companies with ambulances do save lives, and that occasionally a regular old fire company will do the same, ..."though not often."


Firefighters were steamed, with two companies posting anti-Shank signs on their buildings. A four-hour meeting this past Sunday between fire/rescue officials and the county, with Shank absent, seems to have defused the situation, at least for now.

Here's the problem: For a variety of reasons, including increased training requirements, it's getting more difficult to recruit volunteers. That means that as companies hire paid professionals to cover daylight shifts, their costs increase. Some of that increase can be covered by billing insurance companies for service, by payments from the gaming commission and with old reliable fund-raisers like bingo games and summer carnivals.

The rest of the cash will likely come from a county-wide fire tax. But because it's the nature of governments to exert control, companies which want cash will have to submit budget requests just like other government departments. This is where friction will develop, as volunteers have to endure being questioned by elected officials who may know the difference between a pumper and a hook-and-ladder truck, but not much more.

And what about clean-up on the fire scene? After Shank's remarks were made public last week, I talked to a number of fire service veterans, one of whom said some of Shank's complaints may have had some validity in the '40s and '50s. Back then it was not unusual, he said, for some companies to pump so much water into a burning house that water rushing down the stairs made it difficult for firefighters to get to the second story. Techniques are different now, he said, with firefighters using different spray patterns to push the fire away from areas not yet burned, minimizing water damage.

Clean-up, or "salvage and overhaul" as the firefighters call it, is a also a bigger priority today, another fire service veteran said. Furniture that hasn't been damaged is dragged into the center of a room or out onto the lawn and covered with a tarp. But, he said, the fire service doesn't do walls, windows or carpet cleaning. There are private firms that are paid by insurance companies to do that, he said.

But the wisest comment came from a third person who's been involved in the fire/rescue service, who said that when you come right down to it, fires are messy. You hope the firefighters will save most of the house, but when they're gone, it's up to the homeowner and the insurance company to do the rest.

And no one should ever forget what a sacrifice volunteers make to do what they do. Six years ago Herald-Mail's Terry Headlee wrote a great series that was, in part, about the strain of being on-call in an area with too few volunteers. Sometimes the choice comes down to family or the fire service, as illustrated by this tale one former volunteer chief told me:

One evening he and his wife were painting the living room, when a call for manpower came across the monitor, on a night when he was supposed to be off-call. He looked at her, she looked at him and he put on his coat and left.

Hours later, when he returned home, he said he knew he was in trouble because everything was right where he'd left it - the stepladder, the tarps and the open can of paint. They've since divorced. The emotional and financial cost of that break-up isn't something the taxpayers had to bear, but the fact that many have paid a similar price for their service to the community should earn them a pass from off-the-cuff comments that downplay their sacrifices.

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