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St. Lawrence County moves to create emergency citizens group

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators gave initial approval Monday to a council that would oversee volunteers who could be called into service in the event of a widespread emergency that overtaxed firefighters and emergency medical workers.

Volunteers under a Citizen Corps Council — through the county Office of Emergency Services — could check on senior citizens and those with special needs, staff shelters, assist during evacuations and do damage assessment among other tasks that need doing during emergencies but not necessarily by first responders.

The volunteers would not perform the duties of emergency medical technicians, firefighters or fire police.

“Their first and primary goal would be to stay safe,” said county Emergency Services Director Joseph M. Gilbert.

Creation of the council has the backing of the Emergency Services Board and the Fire Advisory Board, which see the program as a way to give relief to first responders in a big event such as an ice storm.

“You can only be effective so long,” said Joseph A. Finnegan, chairman of the Fire Advisory Board. “These people will fill the void.”

The Community Emergency Response Team could be a way for volunteers to fulfil a desire to help their community but not take on all the training requirements of a full-fledged firefighter or EMT, said Joseph P. Gallagher, also a member of the Fire Advisory Board.

Some legislators were not enthusiastic because volunteers would likely be covered under workers compensation, raising the county’s liability.

The mission of the volunteers would be different from those of the Citizens Patrol put on hiatus a decade ago but the arguments against are the same, Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler said.

In the case of the Citizens Patrol — which was directed at helping law enforcement — a drawn-out legal battle over workers compensation benefits began when one of the volunteers died in a car accident.

“It’s a sad result,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “The liability is always there.”

In the case of the community responders, the volunteers would not be covered by the county until they were officially activated and that would not happen often, Mr. Gilbert said. If they acted on their own, they would be treated as good samaritans on their own, he said.

Mr. MacKinnon also questioned whether the volunteers could meet the expectations of people who saw them in official attire and thought they would have more to offer.

The emergency teams were begun through the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Sept. 11, Mr. Gilbert said. St. Lawrence would become the 19th county in the state if the teams were formed.

The resolution was approved 11-3, with those in opposition Legislators Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, and Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena. Legislator Vernon D. Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said he might oppose the measure at the full board because of reservations about liability.

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