Rural areas are threatened by a loss of firefighters and, worse yet, emergency medical personnel. The subject has been on the minds of emergency workers for years and was raised anew last week at the Essex County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee meeting.

The problem certainly isn't restricted to Essex County. Clinton and Franklin counties face the same dilemma, as does practically every rural community in the state. Suffolk and Nassau counties, on Long Island, are trying to address the issue with just as much urgency as our counties.

It boils down to this: Fewer people are joining the volunteer fire service and emergency medical service these days than used to be the case. Years ago, the fire service was a brotherhood — almost as much a social group as a public service. A young man or woman (though years ago it was almost exclusively a fraternity) often had to wait in line to join a fire department, the attraction was so popular.

Things changed, over the years. For example, beer became outlawed in the stations. Whether that had any negative effect on membership is uncertain — veteran members would argue vigorously that it didn't — but it did reflect an old-time, long-revered way of life that was undergoing a societal metamorphosis.

More important to the ranks of the state's emergency responders were new requirements that members had to fulfill. Training was intensified. An EMT now has to have 136 hours of training just to start. It's easy to understand why, since they actually are the ones in whose hands lives are entrusted as hospital care awaits.

And it's dangerous. Since 1991, nine ambulance workers have been killed in the line of duty in New York state.

Recruiters for emergency departments are up against the increase in single-family households, which allow for little time to train and answer calls. Many young people leave the area for college or a career, and more two-income families have scant time for volunteering.

A bill now before the legislature would provide incentives for recruiting new firefighters and EMTs and retain more of the old ones.

Among its provisions are a $400 state income-tax credit for volunteers with four or more consecutive years of service. That's in addition to the $200 they already get.

It would exempt motor vehicles used in the performance of emergency duties from registration fees and vehicle-use taxes.

It would help with health insurance for members.

It would increase scholarship opportunities for department members.

And it would create a college-loan-forgiveness program for volunteer recruitment service.

The North Country faces an even more desperate situation than other regions because of its sparse population. There simply are fewer people to try to entice into service. Local departments are having to consider paying people to serve as EMTs.

We sympathize with these departments, which have been such an integral part of the fabric of life for so long and are now in such serious need of invigoration.

We hope that this bill passes and that it helps. Around here, anyway, it's a matter of life and death.

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