A woman in her mid-sixties is lying on the floor of a local restaurant. She's conscious, with her feet propped up on several jackets, a wet towel draped across her forehead and a blanket covering her body.
Kneeling beside her is Ray Harne, 48, veteran paramedic and battalion chief, Fire Station No. 9 in Howard County. During dinner, the woman fainted and the restaurant manager called for an ambulance.
"Do you know what happened? Is this the first time? Are you on any medications?" asks Harne, who is also the medical duty officer and often responds ahead of an ambulance.
Gently, he touches the woman's wrist but never takes his clear blue eyes off her except briefly to reassure her husband. Moments later, the ambulance arrives. "What have we got, chief?" a paramedic asks.
Harne gives him a complete rundown, and the paramedic team stabilizes the woman and prepares to take her to the hospital.
"Around this fire station, Ray is known as Mr. Calm," says Antonio (Tony) Concha, a veteran paramedic. "He earns our respect every day; he doesn't have to demand it. He never raises his voice to be heard. We lower ours to hear him."
Since 1990, the demand for fire and rescue services in Howard County has increased dramatically. In 1990, there were 12,500 calls countywide. By 2001, that number had more than doubled. The number of paramedics has tripled to 75 during the same time.
By all accounts, Harne is considered exceptional. In his 23 years with the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, he has earned nearly every certification possible. He is an emergency medical technician (EMT), a certified cardiac rescue technician (CRT) and a nationally registered emergency medical technician paramedic. He also is a trained firefighter.
Harne has undergone advanced training so he can provide additional medical assistance and may, in certain situations, take command of an accident or fire scene. Because of his special training, Harne carries medications and instruments for performing life-saving procedures, such as rapid sequence intubations to open a victim's airway.
"I assign myself to go out on critical dispatches," Harne says. "Cardiac arrest, multi-car accidents or when the police report an unusual situation."
Says paramedic David Sabit:
"We might be dealing with several victims with multiple injuries, and Ray will arrive and quietly begin offering suggestions and advice. He doesn't get in your face to shout orders. He keeps his eye on the big picture."
Harne, who has light brown hair and a mustache, wears a white shirt that identifies him as the battalion chief. He starts work at 7 a.m., works 24 hours on duty and has 48 hours off, then is back on for 24. During a typical shift, he divides his time roughly between responding to medical and fire emergencies, managing the fire station, mentoring and training, and sleeping.
There are an average of eight to 10 calls during the day at the station on Tamar Drive and three to five at night, producing a barrage of bells and sirens and a rush of activity for the dozen men and women typically on duty. Yet in the midst of it all, the atmosphere in the firehouse is a reflection of Harne: organized, professional, calm and with touches of humor.
"In this business, we know that if we ever miss a meal or a chance to use a bathroom, we will pay dearly," he says.
In between responding to calls, Harne is responsible for the station's schedule as well as some public events and meetings. He also is the leader of his team's quality assurance program.
"Maintaining the highest standards of emergency care is vital, and it's what citizens expect of us, so I spend several hours on each shift reviewing ambulance reports and monitoring the quality of our service," Harne says. He also makes sure that the staff is familiar with changes in procedures and trained in the use of new equipment.
In his spare time, he mentors those preparing for the difficult National Certification Examination for Paramedics. "Ray has a broad base of experience and is willing to share everything he knows anytime he has a few free moments. When our training is completed, we know we are prepared for the examinations and for doing our jobs well," Sabit says.
So what does it take be a good paramedic?
Most at the fire station say compassion must come first. After that, it takes someone who's willing to undergo extensive training, is able to think fast and respond instinctively to situations that make most people shudder, and can remain calm in the face of crisis.
"Someone just like Ray," says Sabit.
It is, Harne says, a difficult job -- technically, physically and emotionally. "One of the key qualities we look for is commitment," he says. "There's nothing easy about the long hours and often physically difficult work. Then there are the calls when the sick or injured are children. We can't help but think about our own."
Harne and his wife, Marcie, have been married for 27 years. That's a source of pride for Harne who works in a profession with a high rate of divorce. They live in Mount Airy with their three children, Alyssa, 21; Nicholas, 18; and Jacob, 16. The couple home-schooled all three.
Harne was named Career Officer of the Year in 1998 -- nominated by the 300 uniformed men and women in the Department of Fire and Rescue Services.
"Ray is respected for his leadership style and for his technical skills," says Dan Merson, battalion chief and former EMS program manager. "He brings a steadiness in a line of work that is filled with crises."
For Harne, the fire service is a second family, and his role is taking care of that family while serving the county's residents.
"I feel that God has gifted me with compassion, patience, objectivity, humor and perspective, and to lose any of these would make the job a great burden and not as satisfying," he says. "My work is deeply rewarding."