One of the tougher jobs of elected officials is striking the proper balance between spending wisely to keep citizens safe, vs. spending money merely to create the appearance of safety.
That issue hits close to home this time of year. Columbia County school officials are debating whether to pay for a cheaper ambulance service to park at varsity football games, or whether to abandon the practice altogether.
It isn't a lot of money. The system pays Gold Cross about $11,000 to park an ambulance at each varsity home game. Another service wants to do it for about half as much.
But should the system be spending the money at all? To answer, it's important to recall why the ambulances are there in the first place. Road work and rush-hour traffic kept a ground ambulance from getting to Greenbrier High School after an injury to a football player in 2003, so a helicopter took the player to the hospital.
Shortly after, school officials decreed ambulances should be posted at all varsity football games.
The problem? The player in that original incident was in a junior varsity game. The current policy wouldn't have helped him one bit. And varsity games are played in the evening, long after rush hour is over. Traffic just isn't an issue.
What's more, the current policy hasn't helped many varsity players, either; in the five years the policy has been in effect, the ambulances have rarely been used at games, and sometimes even have to leave to take calls elsewhere.
And, of course, there's the small matter - as pointed out by some school board members - that varsity football games are the only sporting events with dedicated ambulances. Get hurt during soccer? Wait for an ambulance like everyone else.
The good news is that response times for the county's emergency services is blazingly fast: barely seconds for most first-responder fire trucks, all of which are staffed with medical personnel, and 8-14 minutes at worst for Gold Cross, says Columbia County Emergency and Operations Director Pam Tucker, who keeps track of response times.
What's more, trained medical personnel are on the sidelines at every sporting event in the county already. All the staff and players know that, even if the fans in the stands don't.
And the perception of those fans is the only reason to keep parking ambulances at varsity football games: for them, it keeps up the appearance of safety.
In other words, it's better to be seen as having it and not needing it, than needing it and not having it. While that might be comforting, it's a lousy way to make policy.
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