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Be it county or fire-and-rescue, someone needs to mend this system

August 29, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

It's reassuring to know the Washington County Commissioners feel "very sad" and that it was "inappropriate" for a Smithsburg ambulance chief to all but cheer from the sidelines, on tape, as a member of the Smithsburg fire company and her unborn baby lay dying. Very reassuring indeed.

Now what do they plan to do about it?

And were the commissioners "very sad" before the press wrestled the tape into the public's eye, a tape the county wanted to keep secret? Or would they have been content to keep on looking the other way, pretending the whole, awful affair hadn't happened at all?

Keep in mind, this didn't happen yesterday, or even last week. It was nearly six months ago that the call went out from the home of Christina Hess, who lived less than a block away from the ambulance hall. Still, it took an ambulance crew seven minutes to come to her assistance from the time the call went out, and Smithsburg's ambulance chief at the time, Jason Tracey, can be heard on tape lilting "It's a tragedy" and "my heart weeps." Later, after Hess' death, he said "they get what they deserve."

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What could possibly have happened between the fire company the ambulance company that inspired the head of a care-giving unit to celebrate the death of a woman and her unborn child?

Don't the commissioners find this even slightly odd? In their weaker moments, do they ever catch themselves wondering how they can, ultimately, oversee a system that broke down to the point that something like this could happen?

If the most profound thing you can say about this whole sordid mess is that it was "inappropriate," as did County Commissioners President Greg Snook, you should have to seriously reevaluate your ability as a public servant and ask if you are really up to the job.

The Smithsburg fire and ambulance companies got into a well-publicized scrap a couple of years ago over who was and who wasn't allowed to own a certain style of truck. At the point it became such a ridiculous rivalry, sensible leaders would have hauled all involved parties into the commissioners' chambers, slapped them across the chops and said, "You two don't get along, you lose your county funding; you still don't get along, and the county is taking over both departments."

But the commissioners do nothing, because doing nothing is easy. And encouraged. Notice that not all fire and rescue people are lining up to demand change. One chief said, most of all, he feared this incident could cause a "public perception" problem. That's true in this sense: This is an extreme case, and it should in no way taint public confidence in the men and women who every day turn in heroic performances with little regard for money or recognition. Thousands of successful ambulance runs are performed each year, yet this one gets the ink.

But the public understands this. No one is going to second-guess calling an ambulance because of one rogue action. I think the greatest perception problem is going to be within the fire and rescue ranks themselves. How many in the system heard the news about Hess and did an uneasy, mental inventory of other simmering problems that need to be dealt with before they flare up in public - maybe not in their stations, but elsewhere in the system?

People in the association understandibly aren't going to be too keen on shining light on a breakdown, because they don't want to make it appear as if they are in need of adult supervision - or more accurately, county control.

No organization in control of its destiny wants to give that up. But if the association wants to keep the control it now enjoys, it's going to have to turn in a better effort than, "We got rid of the one bad apple; problem solved." First, while his actions in this case can't be defended, it's doubtful Tracey rose to the top of the Smithsburg EMS by being bad at his job. Second, if stronger elements in your system can be made to snap, a break is possible anywhere.

The fundamental problem, in a sentence, is that there are a lot of good men and women placed in a bad system that occasionally forces some of the weaker links to break - in this case, spectacularly. We have more than two dozen fire and rescue companies pitted against each other, fighting for the same, scarce recruits and fighting each other for the same, scarce dollars. This doesn't just allow for dissension, this virtually guarantees it.

In fact, it's amazing they succeed as well as they do - that they are able to put all their rivalries aside at the sound of a siren. But as long as those rivalries exist, tensions will remain and when tensions rub raw we see what can happen. It should be up to the county to devise a system where companies can share successes, instead of having to divide them up.

No company is going to have so little pride in itself that it will happily step forward and say, "OK, for the greater good, we will fold ourselves in under the flag of the station three miles down the road." And the county's model companies, such as Halfway (whose top-shelf efforts I witness on a daily basis) and others, are not going to want to be controlled by county government which, in truth, operates far less purposefully than they do.

For the time being, the association can probably get away with defending the increasingly undefendable status quo. We know enough about the current county commissioners to understand they are probably incapable of doing anything beyond being "sad" and hoping this whole thing will just blow over.

But the association may wish to give the issue attention now, because we may not always have commissioners who base their policy on five sets of crossed fingers.

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