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Volunteers deserve respect

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It would be difficult to overstate the importance of volunteers and the services they provide to the community.

Those who volunteer share their time, energy and knowledge with friends, neighbors, family and strangers, all while sacrificing their own comfort, to do some good.

That's especially true of those who serve with volunteer emergency service agencies. Such volunteers provide the bulk of emergency response to care for crash victims on busy Interstate 77, to rush into a burning building to make sure everybody else is out and to put themselves in other unnerving situations.

Volunteers at times perform heroic acts, worthy of honor for themselves, their departments and their communities — though that's never the goal in and of itself.

But there's a risk in putting volunteers on a pedestal — when they fall, they fall farther and harder.

People entrust their lives and their safety to firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and they want those volunteers to be beyond reproach, free of even of the perception of wrongdoing.

That moves any issue involving the character of a volunteer into an emotionally charged realm.

A spate of suspensions from fire and rescue agencies in Carroll County recently has highlighted the tension between the need for highly trained volunteers and the rather unforgiving atmosphere when those persons in positions of trust are charged with a crime — or just suspected of doing something wrong.

It appears from anecdotes shared in public debates that there's almost no way to recover from being suspended as a fire or rescue volunteer — even for those willing to fight for the privilege to serve the community — though it's virtually certain that not every case comes to light.

This appears to be true even when that person has the support of a majority of other volunteers in their agency.

Carroll County officials put in place a policy at their Nov. 16 meeting that is intended to codify who qualifies to serve as a fire and rescue volunteer and who doesn't.

Hopefully, that will make the process of approving volunteers more objective than subjective. Of course, it hasn't been tested yet.

The policy doesn't take into account the hard life lessons that may be learned by those who make wrong decisions.

So, a question remains for both citizens and leaders to consider.

Considering that those willing to serve others are an asset to the community, is there no way for those who have fallen under a cloud to come out from its shadow?

At least Carroll County officials and fire and rescue personnel are talking at this point.

Representatives of the volunteer agencies met with the Carroll Emergency Services Board to discuss county officials' decisions, the amount of information to be submitted to the county, the soft-billing process, funding matters and their relationship in general. That meeting probably went a long way in clearing the air and dispelling distrust.

Everyone should keep this effort to communicate alive. Issues that have been building over a long period are not likely to go away after one meeting.

It's a good way to show respect for those all-important volunteers.