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Ever mindful of emergency volunteers

Decades have passed since I last heard the fire alarm go off in the middle of the night, but the piercing two-tone noise will never leave me.

What is even more vivid are the sounds that followed: Two feet hitting the floor. Jangling change in a pair of jeans being pulled on. The muffled pounding of someone running down carpeted stairs. A door opening and closing. An engine starting.

I must have heard my stepfather race out of the house hundreds of times after that alarm went off. I always rolled over and went back to sleep. He never did. He's closer to 70 than 60 now, and he still answers that call.

Although their numbers are dwindling, there still are people like him all over Western New York, men and women who volunteer their time and their sleep when you and I need help.

Increasingly, they are finding themselves in the cross hairs of elected officials who are looking for places to save money.

*The Boston town supervisor came to an agreement with the town's three volunteer fire companies last week after the Town Board sought to renegotiate contracts. Firefighters and their supporters showed up in droves to denounce the board.

*In Clarence, the town and four of its fire departments -- Clarence Center, Harris Hill, Rapids and Swormville -- have not been able to agree on a contract for 2011.

*Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz issued a report this year calling on the county's volunteer fire companies to examine ways to consolidate to cut costs.

It's not just fire departments. The Lancaster Town Board this month renewed its contract with the Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps for a year after initially considering cutting the corps from the budget to save $45,000.

The sudden spike in government interest in emergency responders is all about money. Voters are demanding tax relief. So elected officials are looking at every single dollar they spend. Utility costs keep going up, as does the cost of fuel and equipment. The steepest costs are in personnel, but salaries and benefits are often locked in by contracts and protected by both powerful unions and the courts.

Emergency services are one of the few budget lines they actually can control, and despite the political risks, they're going to try.

Volunteer fire departments should not be immune, and, to be sure, they have brought some of this added attention on themselves. When they needed new firehouses, some built palaces. They buy vehicles for hundreds of thousands of dollars when it might make more sense to share with another department or make do without. Their typical response to any suggestion of change or consolidation is to deride it, as they did with the Poloncarz report.

But every criticism can and should be offset by a simple reality: The people who make up these departments are volunteers. Unpaid. They do not get up in the middle of a frigid winter night, knowing that the next call could be their last, because they have to, or because they make a nice living doing it. They risk their lives because they want to serve their community.

As much as any person or group that depends on public money should expect additional scrutiny, volunteer emergency responders also deserve at least as much public support. They have earned it the hard way, and they continue to earn it every day.

I know it's true. It's why I never park in the driveway when I visit my mother and stepfather. You don't want to get between his car and the street when that alarm goes off. No matter what time it is.


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