Words and actions

Published 8:34 pm Saturday, June 5, 2010

With the news at the end of the week that a lapsed workman’s compensation insurance policy had resulted in volunteer firefighters being shut out of fire stations around the city, Suffolk’s reputation with the volunteers who have long been the backbone of its emergency services operations took yet another hit.

Following on the heels of a dustup between the city and the Nansemond Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad, the oversight that city officials said caused the firefighters’ problem is sure to raise eyebrows among those who might be inclined towards mistrust of the city’s relationship with its volunteer emergency services workers.

City officials say they are working to get the policy that covers volunteer firefighters renewed, which would allow the volunteers to rejoin the force that protects Suffolk from fires and other calamity. However, there is more than a little distrust of the city’s motives, considering the less-than-enthusiastic attitude officials showed this week regarding the volunteer rescue squad.

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That squad had asked for $100,000 in its budget request this year. It has been promised just half that amount, and after squad leaders began campaigning with council members for more money, Suffolk’s administrative staff responded with a report on Wednesday in which, for all intents and purposes, the squad’s contribution to the city was determined to have little or no value.

Paid Suffolk firefighters and EMTs could provide the same service, the report stated, at no extra cost and without hardship. To add insult to injury, the report was presented without squad members having been invited to the meeting or even warned that the topic was on the agenda.

It’s hard for many of Suffolk’s taxpayers to understand why the city would be anything other than welcoming of those who would volunteer their time and talents to risk life and limb in pursuit of serving their fellow man. But there are at least theoretical arguments in favor of a professional, paid crew of rescue personnel and firefighters.

But the city isn’t making those arguments. Instead, while Suffolk officials’ actions convey a questionable attitude for volunteers, its leaders speak of their respect and admiration for the service that emergency volunteers provide.

Suffolk’s administration and City Council cannot, however, have it both ways. Volunteers will remember the treatment far longer than they will the words that have been spoken. And they will have more respect for city leaders who treat them respectfully and honestly — even if that comes in the course of telling the volunteers their services are no longer needed.