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  • Last modified 2604 days ago (Aug. 3, 2011)

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A burning question

Sometimes you can’t win for losing. Two weeks ago, volunteer firefighters were so overtaxed extinguishing controlled fires that seemed to inevitably swirl out of control that the county issued an emergency proclamation banning burning during the current heat wave and drought.

What should have provided relief for valiant, overburdened volunteers ironically might have led to even more fire calls. At least nine times since the burn ban was imposed, Marion County firefighters have been called to extinguish grass fires that the burn ban sought to eliminate.

At least one of those fires began as a controlled burn, intentionally set to clear refuse but never reported as such to authorities. Although the proclamation allows for a fine of up to $2,500, up to a year in jail, or both, firefighters chose to give the person responsible a break, believing an offered excuse that he or she was unaware of the ban.

To date, neither firefighters nor sheriff’s deputies have requested criminal charges against anyone who either willfully or ignorantly defied the ban. Now may be the time to stop being so lenient.

Marion County relies on a small core of extremely civic-minded individuals who perform vital vigilance protecting life, limb, and property. There is little glory and even less financial reward serving as a volunteer firefighter. Workers who do — and employers who generously allow them to — deserve a level of praise and admiration that all the adjectives in a dictionary would prove insufficient to describe.

The problem is, the more they are called upon, the more danger we face that they will not be there when needed. Several times in recent weeks, emergency calls to firefighters in certain communities have gone unanswered, and the calls have been forwarded to firefighters in neighboring communities instead.

The firefighters are not to blame. Many of them work out of the county. Others have jobs they cannot always get away from. Every individual firefighter simply cannot be expected to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet the more we overburden them with unnecessary calls, the harder it becomes to secure volunteers able to respond at any time.

Grass fires are only a small portion of the calls firefighters receive. As a safety measure, they respond to many car accidents, to reports of gas leaks and downed power lines, even to many ambulance calls, either to help with lifting or to serve as fill-in first responders.

Their job is dirty, demanding, and dangerous. Their sacrifice to the community should never be dismissed.

No one is suggesting not calling the fire department when potential peril exists. All emergency services operate under the principle of better safe than sorry.

But that adage also applies to how we deal with these vital volunteers. Expect too much of them or fail to recognize the significance of their contribution, and we may very well end up more sorry than safe.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Aug. 3, 2011

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