As a fire raged in downtown Spring Valley, I was busy working on three of our newspapers less than a block away in our Spring Valley office. Although I checked on the fire occasionally to get some news photos, I wasn’t worried about the fire spreading because I had a lot of trust in the people fighting the blaze.

Small town emergency management has changed drastically over the past few decades. The volunteers are capable professionals who can handle just about any situation.

Today’s volunteer firefighters are armed with up-to-date technology, such as infrared cameras that show hot spots invisible to the naked eye and sophisticated communications.

They also have state-of-the-art equipment. In the Spring Valley fire, a large ladder truck from Stewartville was on the scene, even though Stewartville isn’t a mutual aid partner. The ladder that comes in handy to fight fires from above has been used for several major fires in Spring Valley and surrounding towns.

Most of all, the firefighters from five departments in last week’s fire have vast knowledge of the intricacies of fires and how to work on them as they have gone through extensive training. Rural fire departments today are more working study groups than social clubs.

The members of our emergency crews are professionals in every sense. Yet, they are still volunteers. The fire in Spring Valley involved five departments and dozens of personnel, some who stayed on the scene for 13 hours straight.

That is quite a sacrifice, not only for them, but also to their employers who lose productive workers.

However, the rewards are great as the community could have lost an entire block of its downtown if the fire had spread to adjacent buildings, something that could have been quite likely with the common sides, many false walls and ceilings due to multiple remodeling and older construction that doesn’t have fire walls or other safety measures.

Other volunteers are often on hand at fires as well. Ambulance personnel may stand by in case firefighters or others need attention.

Rural ambulance services have also come a long way in the past few decades. They are sophisticated crews that can handle medical emergencies in a professional manner.

It wasn’t that long ago when private services rigged up a vehicle to transport people with volunteers who had little training. Today, it requires passing a difficult exam after many hours of college level coursework.

Back when the area had a couple rural hospitals in Harmony and Spring Valley, there was a public hearing on closing one of them. One disgruntled resident accused the board of putting money before saving lives.

The response from the board spokesperson was that the workers at the hospital deserved to get paid for their efforts in saving lives.

The ironic thing today is that volunteers are now saving lives through local ambulance services, perhaps as well as the former hospitals did. They may get paid, but the stipends are well below market rate. They may not be doctors, but they have had extensive education and training. They may not be housed in hospitals, but ambulances are far more sophisticated than they once were — and perhaps could rival the emergency rooms of the former hospitals.

If the situation is dire, Mayo One, a helicopter ambulance service that is truly a mobile emergency room, is available around the clock.

Rural residents are lucky to have educated, responsive volunteers looking after the communities they serve.

However, one thing that makes them so skilled is also the thing that makes them more rare today: a commitment to training.

The hours of bookwork, hands-on training and tests involve quite a commitment for volunteers to make. Most departments and services are staffed adequately for now, but there is concern about what the future holds.

We may rest easy knowing some sharp people are out there ready to tend to emergency situations in our small towns and rural countryside, but there is an uneasy feeling about how long that will last. As in most situations in life, money is a factor and the economics of saving lives in rural areas remains a conundrum.

For now, make sure to thank the volunteers who put their lives on the line to help save our lives. The commitment they make to bettering the community is priceless.