Monday, August 17, 2015

Lack of fire, EMS volunteers puts public safety at risk

Every Monday, the Lockport Union Sun & Journal highlights a volunteer organization, what it does, and what it needs. It’s a nice touch, and a necessary one, as all of them are struggling to get the people they need to deliver the services that their clients need and expect. I see that in my volunteering as well – as president of the local Boy Scout council I have a difficult time filling critical board and operational positions.

These experiences are more than just anecdotal. The volunteer rate in New York is dead last in the country. Only 1 out of every 5 New Yorkers gives their time -- even just once a year -- to assist a non-profit or their church.

While that lack of civic-mindedness is a great frustration for our organizations, it’s not life or death. It is, though, when you consider that volunteer fire and emergency medical service companies have the same staffing problems that we do.

Policymakers will tell you that terrorism is the greatest threat to public safety in this country. It’s not. The lack of fire and EMS volunteers is. You might not know it, but we’re in the middle of a crisis and it seems like there is no end in sight.

If you regularly listen to the police scanner, you know what I am talking about.  Quite often, especially with EMS, the call to the initial provider goes unanswered. And, it’s become common for fire companies respond to what once was a call that they could handle on their own and they now find themselves calling for back-up from neighboring fire halls.

Consider two recent local calls that highlight these developments.

On the Fourth of July, a woman in her sixties fell down and was believed to have broken her arm. Dispatch put out of the call multiple times and the primary service organization never responded; there wasn’t enough manpower available. I can only imagine the pain the lady was in because it took almost a half hour from the first 911 phone call before she was properly attended to.

Also last month, a fire broke out in a farm field in Gasport on a weekday. In years gone by, there would have been enough firemen responding because shift workers who were employed by Harrison’s were available during the day. Now, there’s not. Only a half-dozen folks responded to the call. They also had to get creative and have Tri-Town block the roads with their ambulances, a task that would normally be done by fire police.

Stories like these have become normal occurrences, which does not bode well for public safety. There were ultimately happy endings to both, but imagine, if you will, if something truly catastrophic happened. What if a school bus careened out of control on an icy road? What if a train carrying ethanol derailed? What if a heavily-occupied apartment complex caught fire? What if, God forbid, an act of terror or violence occurred in one of our neighborhoods? 

There wouldn’t be enough people to respond with the immediacy needed. Property would be lost and, worse yet, so would lives.

The manpower just isn’t there anymore to handle such crises. From 1990 to 2010, the number of fire fighters in New York State dropped a whopping 24 percent. Over that same period, the number of calls across the state doubled.

How did we get to the point that all the firefighting and lifesaving – and more of it -- is on so few people? Many reasons have been kicked around: the aging-out of the rural population; two-income households which don’t give first responders the scheduling flexibility they once had; onerous training mandated by state and federal governments that requires too much money and too much time; the time constraints of keeping fire halls monetarily viable in an increasingly-competitive fundraising “market”; and the introversion of our culture created by the breaking of America’s real-life social structure and sense of community due to the alleged one created by social media.

Regardless of the cause, something needs to be done. Goodness knows the firefighters have been trying. Recruiting open houses have become a regular part of the spring across New York State. They’ve reached out through newspapers, radio, and TV. They’ve installed Explorer posts in their halls and schools.

But, all that will go for naught if the citizens aren’t interested in being good citizens. While I might want more people to help me out with Scouting, we need people to fight fires and save lives. Somehow, someway, volunteerism needs to become sexy again in America.

What will the wake-up call be? A catastrophe of epic proportions that kills innocent civilians and the few good souls who come to their need? Sadly, we already had that on 9/11 and it did almost nothing to inspire people to do good after the dust settled.

The wake-up call might have to be the consideration of paid companies that will kill the budgets of rural communities, hitting people where it hurts them the most – their pocketbooks and not their hearts.

From the 17 August 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal 

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