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First responders recognized during May

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They may wear a variety of uniforms and have different areas of expertise, but one quality binds all first responders: They’re the ones who immediately run toward an emergency when the first impulse is to run away.

Their invaluable contributions have been highlighted in recent weeks in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, the ricin-poisoned letters in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi and the explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant.

Kentuckians see that same level of commitment from our emergency workers every day, and it especially shines when we face such catastrophes as the historic winter storm from several years ago or the tornadoes that ripped through sections of Eastern Kentucky early last year.  Overall, the commonwealth has ‘weathered’ 11 presidentially declared disasters since 2008.

It takes a lot of training to be ready to act at a moment’s notice.  Fortunately, this is an area where Kentucky excels.

Eastern Kentucky University, for example, has been educating first responders for nearly 50 years, and the number of those with careers in homeland security who take classes there measures in the thousands every semester.  The news program “60 Minutes” recently underscored the quality of the school’s professors when it cited one as one of the top five fire experts in the country during its story on a controversial 1970 fire in Tucson, Ariz.

Like EKU, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System trains thousands of first responders each year as well, as do the Kentucky Board of Emergency Medical Services and the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

The Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, meanwhile, plays a crucial role in tying all of this expertise together so that the various agencies can work seamlessly when the need arises.  That includes working with the nation’s only state-level mobile data network that all local first responders can access for free and helping run the Kentucky Intelligence Fusion Center, which was formed in 2005 to share critical information tied to criminal or terroristic activity.  Contributing agencies range from Kentucky State Police and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service.

You can help, by the way, if you are aware of any suspicious activity.  The number for the center’s anonymous tip line is 1-866-EYE-ON-KY.

The Kentucky Office of Homeland Security is also involved in coordinating training exercises.  In the last year, our state and local agencies have looked at how best to evacuate the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium in an emergency and how to handle a nuclear threat in Louisville.

As first responders know all too well, their job of keeping us safe puts them at considerable risk. To honor this ultimate sacrifice, there are statewide memorials for our fallen police officers and firefighters, with the first having more than 500 names and the second having more than 180.

Our country also sets aside time to honor many who serve.  Our public-safety dispatchers were recognized earlier this month; the second week of May is known as National Police Week; National EMS Week is the following week; and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend will be Oct. 5-6. In Kentucky, Sept. 11 is “9/11 First Responders Day.”

This year, the General Assembly adopted several laws designed with our first responders in mind. One of those will make it easier for those who received firefighter or EMT/paramedic training in the military to use that experience when applying for those jobs at home, while another toughens the penalties for those who are convicted of manslaughter or reckless homicide in cases tied to the death of working police officers or firefighters. This will make sure the defendants serve an appropriate sentence for their actions.

We also extended qualifying death benefits to university police officers and strengthened school-safety plans, so that first responders will be much better informed in those instances when there is an emergency on school grounds.

We can never fully re-pay our first responders for all they do for us, but we are forever grateful for the security they provide day and night.  Our way of life would not be possible without them.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District, which includes Carroll County, in the Kentucky General Assembly.