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Advertise on the Tentacle

March 15, 2010

Safety First

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

It started the way these things usually do. While working on a vehicle in an alley, a resident noted heat and smoke coming from a garage behind their home. A small fire quickly consumed the combustible material that had been collected over many decades and spread throughout the old buildings. The fire engulfed three separate garages initially, but very quickly spread to all six garage buildings in the row.


An alert city police officer on routine patrol saw the telltale signs of a structure fire, and called the fire in to Central Communications. Highly skilled professional emergency communicators initiated the protocols they have been well-trained in, and a full-scale fire response was underway.


The first officer on the scene immediately set up a perimeter, starting close to the scene to limit public exposure to the hazard of fire, explosion, and smoke. As additional officers arrived on the scene, they started evacuating residents from nearby homes and businesses. At one point, the fire jumped from the garage row to the back of the house fronting on South Street.


The first fire and rescue units came from the closest station houses, Citizens Truck Company, United Steam Fire Engine Company, and the Junior Fire Company. These stations are peopled by career firefighters, members of the Frederick County Department of Fire and Rescue Services (DFRS).


As the amount of apparatus and the number of responders increased, the scene presented a more complicated logistics problem. The cordoned area was expanded, now encompassing approximately six city blocks. The process of determining closure is complicated, involving the flow of routine traffic, the risk of hazards expanding from the current fire ground, and the ingress and egress of incoming fire apparatus.


A structure fire in a densely developed urban environment presents unique challenges to the decision-makers. In this case, the units responding from the downtown stations were simply not adequate to deal with the nature and dynamics of the fire.


Central Communications then called out a number of surrounding stations, bringing additional equipment and trained personnel. Demonstrating the challenges of this diverse public safety system, the newly arriving equipment also included volunteer firefighters from Walkersville and New Market.


The who, how and what of firefighting are covered by years of training, drills and exercises. Frederick County has done a good job of utilizing training resources in the National Incident Management System, so our career and volunteer personnel understand the process of coordinating field resources.


A family was displaced from their home due to the fire. The Frederick County Red Cross stepped in to provide temporary shelter for them. During the fire, the woman of the house stood a half-block away, watching and worrying about her home, her property, her lifetime of memories, but most of all, the condition of her beloved cat.


These observations result from having had a front row seat, a benefit of arriving on the scene in the company of Frederick Mayor Randy McClement. When word of the fire first reached his office, Mayor McClement grabbed his ever present ball cap (he rotates between a number of favorites) and we walked up Bentz Street to the scene.


After a quick briefing from the senior Police Department representative, the mayor was introduced to the family who had suffered the most serious property damage. As I stood and watched the emergency response unfold, the mayor stood with the resident, holding her hand and comforting her in one of life’s most difficult times.


I’ll never forget that quiet demonstration of sincere compassion.


I’ll also never forget that each and every one of those career and volunteer firefighters risked their lives throughout that several hour incident. My son-in-law is one of them, and many of my best friends are, too.


My daughter is an emergency services dispatcher, the unseen voices that guide and coordinate the response to this and every other emergency situation encountered in our county. While it seems that our politicians at all levels are incapable of working in cooperation with one another, they can all learn a lesson from our emergency services and first response professionals and volunteers. While they may be separated by interests and geography, they know to set aside all of those differences to come together into a powerful unified force.


Imagine the power to accomplish goals and solve complex problems if only our political leaders could take a page from the first responder’s operational handbook!


That brings me to the point of this column. One week after the fire described above, in a struggle to balance the county budget, our county commissioners argued over the county fire tax. Tax rates and the services those taxes fund have been the source of much controversy ever since the county shifted to a dedicated fire tax.


The most significant cost funded by the fire tax is the personnel needed to provide basic public safety service. Some areas have a mix of volunteers and paid personnel, some stations are totally dependent on career first responders, and a few stations are still exclusively manned by volunteers.


While debating the level of services funded by the urban and suburban fire tax districts, the idea of arbitrarily reducing the number of career firefighters was tossed around.


While it is inevitable that cuts will need to be made in the 2011 and 2012 budgets, and at some point, the cuts will have to involve reductions in personnel, fire and rescue services should be analyzed carefully and thoughtfully before decisions are made to cut positions.


Essential services need to be subject to the most rigorous financial assessment, because the fire described in the first few paragraphs of this column could easily have ended very differently. In fact, every single emergency response has the possibility of ending in a tragedy of unspeakable proportion, but for the efforts of police, fire and rescue workers who show up in the correct number and with tools and training to minimize the impact of the incident on the community.


The community rightly demands that when we call 9-1-1, a dispatcher will answer who understands what we need and how to get it to us. We demand that the right people, with the proper training and equipment, will be sent to assist us as quickly as is humanly possible.


If politicians want to make news with quick fixes and easy answers, fire and rescue is NOT the first or best place to start. Years of observing local government at all levels suggests that arbitrary reductions that don’t affect how an ambulance or fire truck gets to an emergency scene would be easy to come by.


We should demand that our leaders demonstrate that they place our safety over expediency.


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