Help our helpers

With the string of fires, missing or injured hikers and terrible accidents in Cook County over the last month, a lot of people are thinking about our hardworking firefighters and emergency responders. In New York, a piece of legislation has been introduced that could have a positive impact on those folks.

Cook County emergency responders are ready at a moment's notice to come to the aid of community members.

Cook County emergency responders are ready at a moment’s notice to come to the aid of community members.

It’s not often that a bill introduced elsewhere in the country has a positive impact on Cook County. However that could be the case with the Supporting Emergency Responders Volunteer Efforts (SERVE) Act of 2013.

The bill, introduced by U.S. Representative Richard L. Hanna of Barneveld, New York, would give a $1,000 per year income tax credit for members of volunteer firefighting and emergency medical service organizations.

According to an article in the Rome Sentinel in Whitesboro, New York, Hanna has introduced similar legislation in the past, but it was defeated in the House. Hanna has not given up and he hopes to get this passed this time around.

To me, it’s a no-brainer. This would be a way, albeit a small way, to thank the many volunteers who spend countless hours training for emergencies. To become a firefighter, people must invest approximately 120 hours of initial training and then must attend monthly meetings and trainings thereafter. They must be ready, at a moment’s notice, to drop whatever they are doing and dash to the fire hall. To be a First Responder, the investment is approximately 80 hours with an extensive continuing education component.

With two sons, a brother, brother-inlaw, and numerous cousins serving on fire departments or as First Responders in the county, I can’t tell you how many family dinners, birthday parties and sporting events have been disrupted by the sound of pagers going off.

Sometimes the event is cancelled before a responder gets to the hall or the scene. But it still disrupts his or her life. There is still that moment of dread, thinking a good day may be turning horribly bad. There is still a quick shift of thought—put down that wrench, save that computer file, shout a quick “See you later” to the family—as responders head out the door. The page to cancel the call is met with a sigh of relief, but the adrenaline takes some time to subside. Getting back to the task at hand takes a little while.

Sometimes the page is real but for a relatively minor thing like a chimney fire or someone needing minimal medical assistance. But even when the outcome is good—the fire is quickly halted or the ill person is transported rapidly and the prognosis looks good—it again takes people out of their normal routine. Again, the shift of thought, the surge of adrenaline and the separation from family

Those minor emergency calls also take much more time than an observer may realize. An out-of-control brush pile may be quickly extinguished, but firefighters must still park trucks, clean up gear, dry and roll hoses. They may spend more time cleaning up than they spent working on the fire. First Responders may speedily get a patient to the hospital, only to spend another hour—or three—filling out the paperwork or helping out in the emergency room. And again, it takes time to refocus and settle back in to the daily routine.

Then there are the major calls that take our firefighters and First Responders away from family for hours and hours. Those fire calls see our emergency men and women donning heavy turnout gear and tromping cautiously up to—or into—burning structures. Those major incidents mean hauling and handling heavy hoses through deep snow or down long driveways. It may mean climbing ladders and hoisting equipment up onto a roof. It might mean frantically chopping through a frozen lake to reach a water source or hiking a mile with a heavy wild land firefighting backpack. It always means hours and hours of tension, followed by more time back at the fire hall conducting a deep cleaning.

For our search and rescue folks, those major calls mean talking to frantic family members, studying maps, trying to figure out where a missing person could be. It means hours of riding the back roads and trails and bushwhacking through thick brush in freezing cold weather or in hot, humid, black fly weather. Sometimes it means hauling a suffering patient carefully through the woods. And unfortunately it sometimes means transporting a deceased person.

Many of the same people—firefighters and search and rescue workers—are First Responders too, and traumatic medical calls are hard on all of them. First Responders are there moments after an illness strikes someone down or after a trauma occurs. They work to stop bleeding or perform CPR. They provide calm and caring basic medical aid and serve as a reassuring presence for hysterical friends and family.

All of these folks are volunteers. There is some reimbursement—firefighters and First Responders in some departments receive a small stipend for responding to calls. Grand Marais firefighters, for instance, receive $10 for responding to a fire—large or small—and $8 for mandatory meetings and training.

There is a retirement plan through the Firefighters Relief Association, paid out in a lump sum when firefighters reach retirement age. But no one gets paid what he or she actually expends.

Leaving work to answer a page means missing wages. Missing work for seemingly never-ending training means more lost pay. Responders don’t get paid for mileage to calls, for the daycare they must find during extended incidents, or for the quick meals purchased to make up for missed lunches or dinners at home. And they certainly don’t get compensated for the emotional toll it takes on families.

Obviously the men and women who serve as emergency responders are not in it for the money. But I don’t think they would turn down a little help to meet the expenses of helping the community.

And more than that, it would be a tangible sign of respect and appreciation for all of the volunteer firefighters and emergency responders who help our communities every day. I agree with New York Representative Hanna, who told the Rome Sentinel, “This small but meaningful benefit would go a long way toward both encouraging new volunteers to join the ranks of local departments and also thanking those who already choose to give themselves in service to their communities.”

I’m sending a note to U.S. Representative Rick Nolan, asking him to support the Supporting Emergency Responders Volunteer Efforts (SERVE) Act of 2013. I hope you do too.


Plans are worthless, but planning is
everything. …The very definition of
‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected;
therefore it is not going to happen the
way you are planning.
Dwight David Eisenhower

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