Commissioners must act to block repeat of incident

August 25, 2004

The only thing worse than reading the transcript of the phone conversations that took place during a March 5 emergency rescue call in Smithsburg is actually hearing the tape itself.

On the recording, Jason Tracey, chief of the Smithsburg ambulance squad, mocks the suffering of the patient, Christina Hess, who later died. Then afterward Tracey said the fire department, for which Hess was a volunteer, "got what they deserved."

But just because Tracey is (apparently) no longer with the company doesn't mean all the questions surrounding this matter have been resolved.

For instance, it took seven minutes for the ambulance crew to arrive, even though Hess lived only three doors down from the rescue squad's station on Smithsburg's Maple Avenue.


· Question: Isn't that a long time, given that these crews should be ready to go on a moment's notice?

After the incident, Smithsburg paramedic Karen Nicol is heard complaining that she'd needed more help, but that Tracey wouldn't respond.

Tom Altman, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association, said Monday that Tracey couldn't respond because his certification had been suspended.

Had he done so, and had someone reported him for providing treatment, Altman said, Tracey could have been barred for life from doing rescue work in the state of Maryland.

Not so, said Joe Kroboth, the county's emergency services medical coordinator. Tracey could have responded, Kroboth said, but not handled medicine or provided other advanced care.

· Question: Who's right - Altman or Kroboth? The answer is important because anyone who has heard the tape could easily conclude that during the incident Nicol needed moral support, if nothing else.

Both Altman and Kroboth agree that Tracey had lost his certification (or a portion of it) as a result of some previous problem.

· Question: Why was he still functioning as chief of the Smithsburg ambulance company?

It seems clear from the events of recent days that Kroboth and the fire-rescue association are at odds about the supervision of ambulance companies in Washington County.

Kroboth recently proposed that those duties, now performed by an employee of the volunteer association, be transferred to a new position in the Washington County government.

In a statement delivered to the county commissioners yesterday, Altman said that "some association delegates feel this is a power play to create a government bureaucracy and work around the association."

· Question: Given that there are some differences of opinion here, what's the best way to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again?

It's true, as Altman said, that adding a new position will increase the cost of county government, but if the payoff is avoiding a repeat of what happened the night of March 5, it might just be worth it.

None of what we've written should be taken as a slight against the the majority of the hard-working medics and firefighters in the Washington County system. Many have given decades of their private time to save the lives and property of their fellow citizens.

For that reason, they deserve the best system possible. Given the tensions between Altman and Kroboth, we'd like to see an objective outsider look at how things function.

That might be someone from the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

The staff there developed the modern methods of emergency response and would be in a good position to evaluate whether the management provided by the association and the county is adequate, or needs improvement.

We urge the Washington County Commissioners to view what happened March 5 as a horrible wake-up call and take action to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

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