A debt is owed to all who volunteer to fight fires

This is my response to a stinging series of features recently published in the Wilmington, DE News-Journal regarding the failure of the volunteer system in the state. The News Journal writers printed a great many inaccuracies, manipulated response times and, in general, skewed their stories to place the volunteer fire service in as bad a light as possible.

Here is letter to the editor -- published as the series was being presented.

"America’s volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians are extraordinary people. Why? That’s simple – they work at this nation’s most dangerous profession for free. And you will likely never meet a group of individuals more consumed by an avocation, because theirs is a mission of supreme importance – to save lives and limit damage to property. They are dedicated to the core and prove it day-in and day-out by placing their own lives on the line to protect those of others.

The controversial decision as to what level of protection a volunteer fire department provides is not one that firefighters make, but a choice that falls smack dab on the laps of the citizens that they serve. Without the level of dedication provided by local community volunteers, fire rescue services in Delaware would be forced back upon local, state and possibly federal government,

And the thought of inviting federal emergency management at the local level would be disastrous.

We must take stock and the populace must make up its mind of which way they want to turn. If the community wants a higher level of fire protection, they’ll have to pay for it one way or another. Money makes the system work, and that is the bottom line. In a very real sense, the antagonist in this story is not the stubborn volunteer or the head-strong career advocate – it is public apathy."

Lou Angeli,

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Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on January 14, 2009 at 10:44pm
Lou -

I read your editorial with great interest and I agree with some of your comments, but with a slight twist:

The controversial decision as to what level of protection a volunteer fire department provides is not one that firefighters make, but a choice that falls smack dab on the laps of the citizens that they serve.

I tend to disagree with some of that comment. I think it's more of a shared responsibility.

The firefighters are an integral part of that decision making process. They decide on the level of service when they do - or don't - go to training; when they do - or don't - get out for the call; and when they do - or don't recognize their shortcomings and make the conscious decision to stick to their core business - or get out.

The alternative to a poor service delivery model is to increase the staffing. The firefighters and the public will decide whether the staff is paid or volunteer by their actions - or lack thereof.

And in defense of those already volunteering and as a call to action to all those who haven't volunteered yet, I've put a twist on one of your other statements.

Then, it will be up to the citizens, when they enter the FIRE STATION TO VOLUNTEER, to determine whether such lengthy response times are acceptable, or whether they're willing to take on the cost of subsidizing a combination system.

As I always say, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the first step in any good 12-step program is admitting that we have a problem. The difference between those who are successful at recruiting and retaining and those who are not - is those who do something about it.

Unfortunately, that's where apathy abounds. I see it every day. Not everywhere, but in many fire stations.

Everyone involved in the process needs to understand the problem, how they can be involved in creating the solution - and the inevitable outcomes if the known solutions are not applied, or the applied solutions are not successful. Frankly, I make a living out of helping people come to those conclusions.

The fact is: the public is a willing partner, whether they're willing to volunteer with their time - or their check book. It's their choice and it's our choice too.

Personally, I'm committed to helping ensure the survival and success of the volunteer fire service. I just hope there's enough other people out there who share my passion.

We could talk about this all day, but that's not going to solve anything. Only action will.

Thanks for bringing this to light. I appreciate your perspectives.

Stay safe. Train often.
Comment by Lou Angeli on January 14, 2009 at 3:41pm
Strtcopr - I've begun work on a documentary which deals with the plight of volunteers nationwide. You can read the synopsis at http://firevolunteers.blogspot.com/

Will is right on the money when he says someone has to do the job. And I agree with Mary Beth and Beverly when they suggest that the public needs to be educated. As Mary Beth said "this ain't your Daddy's fire service anymore."
Comment by Beverly on January 14, 2009 at 9:20am
Unfortunately public perception is impacted by political deception. Anyone who says there are no politics in the firehouse needs to pull their head out of the sand. Whether it be on a national, regional or local level the image the public receives is mostly PR put forth by agencies not individuals. Ask anyone who has never been inside a firehouse, squad or police station and they cannot tell you anymore about the job than their children can. Until the public realizes that we are Moms, Dads, employees, employers, that we have jobs, families and lives outside of public service and still manage to work, train, stay educated, get up from dinner, out of bed and leave our children's activities to come to your emergency, than the good ole beer drinkin' boys club is all they know. The media doesn't help our image either, watch any television show about the emergency services and tell me that's the life we live....not here.
Part of the culpability lies within ourselves, if each of us can take time to educate the public in our area about what the job is, how we do it, how it impacts them and how they impact us then perhaps one person at a time we can change the perception.
Comment by Will2745 on January 14, 2009 at 7:47am
We do what we do because we like what we do and because of who we are, not for money, not for fame..just because someone has to do it and someone needs us
Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on January 14, 2009 at 12:13am
The Volunteer Fire Service inherently has a bullseye painted on its collective back. Why? 250 years of tradition unimpeded by progress springs to mind. Is that fair? Oh hell no. But everything that we do, every step we take, every justification we make is subject to public scrutiny.

There IS a history of the "Social Club"; the old boy network dominated by turnout gear-wearing dinosaurs who see nothing wrong with Porno Night at the department, and see EVERYTHING wrong with anyone who tells them that they can't.
Anachronistic? Sure. Real Life. Yeah.....not as much as it used to be, but it's still out there.

BUT....this ain't your Daddy's fire service anymore, and where we're falling down is in educating the public, OUR public, our customers...as to the services that we provide; day in, day out...24/7/365. Holidays included.

I just got home from drill tonight and read this post...and my blood boiled. Granted, I'm pretty new to the fire service, but damn it all....I just put in a 10 hour day at my regular job....had enough time to come home, change clothes, grab a handful of crackers for dinner, and then go to my dept. drill.

What did we do? We spent three hours driving through our coverage area in nostril-slamming cold, digging out fire hydrants which were impacted by roughly 4' of snowplow-driven ice, snow and leftover brush....

We had four details out tonight making sure that our village had access to each and every hydrant.

THAT is customer service. That's part of the aggregate of what we do....and the public largely remains woefully ignorant of our efforts.

So here I sit....waiting for my bloodstream to absorb an 800 mg Motrin so that I can get up and go to bed and get ready to go to my day job in six hours.

It's thankless. It's dirty. It's back-breaking. It's cold, and it can be lonely. But we do what we do....living for that one moment where we can make a difference or save a life.

Nuff said.
Comment by Lou Angeli on January 13, 2009 at 11:24pm
Until the features stories slamming Delaware's volunteer service were presented in the statewide newspaper in December, the citizens of Delaware assumed they were receiving excellent protection. Like you say, they knew far more about garbage collection than fire and EMS. But now that the newspaper has placed the fire service on the block for all to see, administrators can no longer hide behind closed bay doors. Questions are being asked, and the public is demanding answers. For starters, each fire company is being audited by the state and my prediction is that the State Fire Prevention Commission will take a more active role in deciding what purchases will be made.

For the past decade, response times have slowly increased as companies have difficulty staffing first-due apparatus. Just 20 years ago, a first alarm assignment anywhere in Delaware could be handled by a single volunteer station. (2 or 3 pumpers, a ladder and heavy rescue) Today, the same incident requires response from as many as 6 stations, some traveling a dozen miles, just to place the 18 bodies needed to fight a room and contents, as Chief Billy Goldfedder suggests.

The state of Delaware provides volunteer companies with millions of dollars each year, much of which goes to apparatus, equipment, buildings and training. But none of it goes into beefing up the immediate response. In Delaware, members still respond to the station, wait for a crew of four, then respond. Often, that wait can be as long as 6 minutes. If one follows Vince Dunn's rule of thumb, in 6 minutes the fire room has already flashed over and has begun to reach out into other portions of the structure.

Now that the newspaper has revealed the inadequacies of the current system, and that the average response time in Delaware is 12-15 minutes, citizens clearly understand that the staple that you mention doesn't have enough meat. And the volunteers will agree that they're max'd out...doing the very best that they can do with the resources they've chosen to purchase and staff that they have remaining. However, they have suggested no proposed, unified fix. Soon, an outside think tank will come into the state to evaluate the quality of service and they will make their recommendations. Certainly the addition of career personnel will be one of those recommendations. Then, it will be up to the citizens, when they enter the voting booth, to determine whether such lengthy response times are acceptable, or whether they're willing to take on the cost of subsidizing a combination system.

As you can see, it has nothing to do with apparatus. Delaware fire companies own the finest! It's about getting those rigs to the job in timely fashion. After all that's why they were purchased.


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