I spent a great deal of time constructing an intelligent post to a forum thread to find it had been closed to discussion, so I decided to post it on my blog. The whole vollie vs. career thing has just got to end. The fire service in this nation will continue to spin on its collective axis forever and there will never be resolution to this question, so why even ask it? In regard to the thread in question, I haven't seen any post regarding South Carolina and getting rid of vollies, so I don't know what the discussion was. As the Director of the State US&R Task Force, I am the next person under the State Fire Marshal in that regard, and I am active with the state fire service, and I can tell you I have no idea why someone would even suggest such a thing. But stranger things have happened, and since I don't know for sure, I can only say, sounds like rumor to me.

However, I understand the constant struggle of self-doubt from the volunteer side as well as the career side. Volunteers are worried they will be phased out because of increasing requirements, time constraints, etc. The career side worries that cities could get rid of paid staff and replace them with volunteers to decrease payroll liability, etc. I posted on this before and apparently, it sunk to the bottom of the forum list. Look, so long as there are rural and semi-rural departments out there there will always be volunteers. And so long as a labor force of volunteers exist in particular communities that are suburban (and even urban) that are committed to answering the higher run volumes and the training needs, there will continue to be volunteers there as well. But in communities where there is a rapidly dwindling volunteer force, or the needs of the community change (like significant increases in population or occupancy that increase the call volume), you will likely see an increase in career staff.

In the South where the urban centers are less congested, I think you will continue to see increases in career staff because the population base doesn't support the numbers of people dedicated for volunteer staffing. Do I have figures to support that arguement? Not at hand, but I would imagine a study would support that theory (sounds like a EFO Paper, huh?) In the Northeast, there are more people living in areas with higher density (more people per square mile), therefore, there are more people to draw from, and also these areas have people who have been there longer and are more vested in their communities, so they have more personal obligation toward contributing. Not to mention that some of those volunteer organizations have incredible traditions and histories that have been around since the beginning of our nation, so changing that in the span of a few years probably isn't going to happen.

It's high time for everyone to stop "fighting" this one way or another; it is what it is. Either you have volunteers, or you do and you work with career personnel supplementing your response, or you are all career. We all do the job, one way or another. Stop being jerks to one another and let's concentrate on some problems we can realistically solve, like increasing the amount of seat belt usage, insuring appropriate incident accountability, or making sure your department embraces accepted command and control procedures.

In my community, the call volume simply overwhelmed the volunteers ability to contribute, coupled with the demographics of the area (our more transient population, as well as a population in the higher age brackets, unable to meet physical demands from the job). At first, we tried using the volunteers in EMS capacity, then we found that we could only get five or ten dedicated individuals, so we supplemented with some career staff. Ultimately, we had to do what was for the best of the community, and staff with career personnel. Currently we have no volunteers. Could we have them in the future? It's not my call, but if it were, I don't see why not, so long as they understood what we expected from them.

On the State US&R Task Force, we have a mix of personnel who are career personnel and volunteer personnel. We also have a few non-public safety volunteers (doctors, communications personnel, engineers) who we are struggling with making sure they have adequate insurance coverage, etc. Is this a permanent problem? No, because once we solve it (which there is pending legislation we are working on to do so), we should be able to welcome these people on board with no problems. Do I want volunteers? Absolutely- if someone is willing to take on this kind of service and they are employed as a carpet salesman, why should that be any different so long as they meet the standards and expectations? My problem is making sure I take care of them appropriately.

Even in Australia, where there are "state" fire services, there are career, combination, and volunteer organizations. They still exist with each other and there are areas where career personnel have had to be sent to shore up response to certain communities. Is it perfect? I would imagine they deal with the same struggles we have here. Did it eliminate volunteers? In some cases, yes. In some cases, however, career staff were eliminated (I know of at least two cases, one in Queensland and one in New South Wales) becuase of a resurgent volunteer commitment.

If you want to retain the voluntary right to respond and contribute, you need to establish a similar and reasonable expectation that if you cannot maintain a certain level of response, you need to seek assistance. If that means increased and more creative recruiting (including the change in "perks" you need to provide) to establish a stronger volunteer base, then it is your responsibility to your community to do so. Otherwise, you need to consider the certainty that increased workload will evolve into career staffing.

My recommendation: Take the emotion out of the equation and solve the problem. What is it going to take to keep volunteers? A strong volunteer commitment and response. How do we do that? Well, this phenomenon is currently the number one problem of volunteer emergency service leaders aside from funding, so don't think it's unique to your area. It's a global issue, and if you can solve it, everyone will come flocking to your door and you can charge those unbelievable consultant fees.

If I find the answer, I'll be the first to let you know from my large yacht in the Carribbean. Stop fighting and work together.

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Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on November 30, 2007 at 11:44pm
It all boils down to economics, as do most aspects of life here on the blue globe. As McCarville said so eloquently, "It's the Economy Stupid".

That being said...will volunteer firefighters ever be completely eliminated? Of course not. Will society ever be completely reliant on paid-only firefighters? Nope...there simply will never be enough discretionary income in town coffers to cover that expense.

What's the answer? Combined departments. Is there going to be a brouhaha between the vollies and the paids? Oh you bet your ass there will. My sympathies lie with the volunteers, partially because of what I do, and the fact that I get paid pretty handsomely to do it. But that's not the only reason.

I've spent some time in FDNY firehouses, and you won't find a better bunch of brothers. They're trained, they continually seek training, and they know that every day carries a risk, particularly these days, post 9/11. No one feels that more poignantly than they do.

So my FDNY hero-worship aside, I work with volunteer fire departments across NYS on a daily basis. 75% of my job is traveling to remote departments to bring training classes to them, and believe me, they're thirsty for the knowldege. These men and women elicit my respect beyond whatever respect I hold for any paid department, because not only do they hold down full-time jobs, take care of their families and engage in other pursuits outside of the FD, they spend their limited free time training, learning, getting involved in their communities, and getting up at 3 am on a cold winter night to assist a community in need.
I love them, they ARE my heroes.
Nuff said.
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on November 30, 2007 at 1:37pm
Well said Mick -

As an advocate for and a solution provider for recruitment and retention issues, the first thing I try to instill in the volunteers is that it's not about them. It's about the customer.

Once we figure that out, agree on it, and commit to it - we'll all get along and move forward from there.

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