Plan your emergencies

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 16, 2005

If it ain't broke, then don't fix it.

The Gates County Schools System is toying with a precedent that may place county citizens in jeopardy if they follow through with a measure curtailing Willie Earl Hofler's emergency response in a school owned vehicle.

The Director of Gates County Schools' Maintenance Department, Hofler is just one of many volunteers who make up the county's emergency response teams. Many local people hear his radio call sign, #828, so often in his response to emergencies they have it assigned on their scanners.

Every fire department in Gates County as well as the county's rescue squad is comprised of volunteers who unselfishly give countless hours of their personal lives to helping citizens in times of emergencies.

What happens to us when other businesses and industries follow the precedent set by the school system if they impose a ban on volunteers, for the good of all county citizens, using business-owned vehicles for emergency response during the hours of 9 to 5?

Gatesville Volunteer Fire Chief Denny Utt's letter puts it best when he said, "Gates County has a rich history of volunteerism, and providing paid staff to replace volunteers would be way beyond the fiscal means of the county as tax rates and bases currently exist."

Hofler's personnel folder, especially with respect to emergency response, must be crammed with award certificates and letters of commendation and thanks that would do any employee proud. After obtaining copies of more than half a ream of paper containing that information, I saw that almost every one came from agencies like Red Cross, Gates County's Department of Social Services, or industries like the power companies that supply the county.

There are also numerous letters from the Gates County Schools' System and Dr. Robert Hahn, Superintendent of Schools, as well as those from former superintendents and county managers. Every one of those letters or certificates points out the extreme dedication Hofler exhibited in the performance of his humanitarian efforts for others.

In one – a personal note from Dr. Hahne to Hofler, it states, "Willie, professionalism does not happen by accident n It's great seeing your involvement with NCPSMA." That note refers to Hofler's service as District I President of the NC Public Schools Maintenance Association.

Dr. Hahne, also forwarded to Willie Earl an email communication received by Hahne from DSS Director Colleen Turner. In that email, she stated; "Willie Earl Hofler was indispensable to so many of us during this disaster! (Hurricane Isabel) He kept watch on us at the high school and middle school and worked with the other departments (sheriff, dispatch, county manager, etc.), as well. Even at the height of the storm, he kept in contact to be sure we were o.k. I praise him as he really was my strength throughout the ordeal. I believe your staff needs to know of his dedication and contribution to the county effort toward safety during and recovery after Isabel."

Dr. Hahne noted on the copy of the email sent to Hofler that a copy of it would be placed in his personnel file.

We must also consider the countless times that Hofler has assisted with Swampfest or the Lion's Club Christmas parade.

If they abandon the use of school-owned vehicles on non-traditional school days, Gates County School Board members will no longer ride in those parades because the events take place on Saturdays and are not school functions.

Hofler will no longer be able to immediately respond to Executive Director of Swampfest, Lulu Eure, to deliver many items needed for that event, the county's largest annual money-maker.

Gates County has the misfortune of having only three paid emergency responders, and they are rescue squad personnel. Every other person who attends to our needs in times of personal disaster is a volunteer, especially with respect to fire departments across the county.

I ask you, what happens if your home and all the possessions you hold dear catch fire during working hours? What if a loved one is trapped inside that burning structure? Just how understanding would you be if Willie Earl Hofler, or any other employee driving a school owned vehicle who also serves as a volunteer emergency responder, could not get to the fire any quicker because they had to first get to their personal vehicle?

If the School Board is considering this possible new regulation as cost-cutting measure in conjunction with the skyrocketing cost of gas, I commend them for their efforts. But where does one draw the line between $2.50 a gallon and the cost of a human life?

As long Hofler or any other county employee who doubles as an emergency services volunteer is not abusing their privilege to operate a county-owned vehicle, then let them perform a duty that is in the best interest of the citizens.