Volunteer vs. Paid Firefighters: The Battle Continues

Ask twenty different people and you will receive twenty different opinions on rather they feel volunteer firefighters or career firefighters are the better professional.  So who really is better trained, better equipped, and even better qualified to answer the public’s calls for assistance? In reality, if we could look past the differences, the fire service as a whole becomes stronger and provides a higher level of service to the public.  After all, isn’t that what our ultimate mission is? “To protect lives and property,” was ingrained to our heads at the beginning of our fire service career. Volunteers risk the same great amount that career firefighters do when answering the same calls.  Volunteers are often just as qualified as many of the nation’s career firefighters and I often hear the phrase, “I would do my job for free, if someone could cover my bills.” The public doesn’t care who answers their calls for help, only that someone shows up and makes their problems go away.  In short, firefighters seem to commonly find this division between the paid and volunteer service when in reality, energy could be spent to help both sides of the issue with the same positive results ultimately resulting in less firefighter injuries and even deaths.

An Introduction                                                                                                                          

Since the inception of the first paid firefighter in the early 1900’s, tensions between volunteers and paid firefighters have grown to substantial heights.  Paid firefighters were created to answer a growing number of responsibilities placed on firefighters as city populations thrived.  This began giving paid members the upper hand when it came to benefits, gear, equipment, and training.  Volunteers quickly grew to resent this favoritism and tensions quickly arose.  Blatant examples have been seen, for example when firefighters in Maryland erupted into a physical altercation in the front yard of a burning home in 2015.  Citizens stood by as their property burned and watched firefighters fight over who was responsible for putting out the fire.  There is no reason for such hatred and animosity among those we routinely call our brothers and sisters.  Some think that paid firefighters have more of a vested interest in the profession because it is not only a hobby, but rather their livelihood.  Volunteers on the other hand are typically seen as being more consumed with family life, work, bills and the other daily hassles in addition to their volunteer hobby.  There is nothing wrong with this, but as individuals volunteers need to realize that we are continually adding more things to our schedules, while the number of hours in the day stays unchanged.  Although there are pros and cons to both type of service, both paid and volunteer firefighters perform the same tasks.  Rather than work against one another, we could become stronger as a whole and provide a higher level of service if we work together.

A Brief Look at the history of the Volunteers

            Volunteers began serving the public at a time when fires were common, but not common enough to warrant a dedicated full-time fire department.  People that lived and worked in their communities would close down their small businesses or farms and respond to their neighbor’s calls for help.  Volunteer firefighters had mainly one job and that was the mitigation and control of fires.  Such a need was demonstrated as early as ancient Rome where we first learn of the creation of and implementation of firefighters.  Fires such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 illustrated the need for dedicated individuals to prevent the spread of small fires into large scale disaster events (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2017). As the world has changed volunteers have a harder time meeting these needs, but some dedicated volunteers continue to meet the ever changing standards.  Many volunteers today tend to be young people, interested in a career in the fire service looking for training and experience.  Volunteer organizations tend to look down on this fact but should instead capitalize on the fact that young energetic individuals are interested in volunteering. This is simply another of the growing concerns of volunteer organizations but by stepping up recruiting efforts they can keep the rotating door rotating people in as well as out.  This is an untapped potential in nearly all volunteer organizations I have ever been a part of.    

Volunteers often feel looked down upon since they are training and fighting fires only when their time allows.  However, something must be said about someone who volunteers to do the job for free.    In many cases this leads to resentment of career firefighters since volunteers feel that many of them only do the job to earn a paycheck.  We all know of that someone at work who hates their job, but comes to work so that they can maintain a steady paycheck. Volunteers put on hold their family lives, money making opportunities, and their free time to answer calls and serve the public.   Volunteer organizations save their communities billions of dollars annually and regularly complete service on tools and vehicles internally. Shafroth (2014) tells us that, “The state's (Texas) 72,000 volunteer firefighters provide services with an estimated annual tax savings value of $6 billion.” Many of these volunteers attend training on their own time and money.  At a time when governments are cutting funds for other departments, volunteers continue to do more with less.  Think of the things a city, or even the country as a whole could do with $6 billion saved in every state.  That would surely satisfy a large portion out of our countries national debt! 

Many volunteers are paid firefighters in another department.  This offers them flexible daytime hours when many other members are at nine to five jobs.  Volunteers are often times looked down upon by paid firefighters for fear that they will take away paid positions.  Volunteers are not allowed in the powerful International Association of Firefighters, an AFL-CIO union.  This union actively negotiates benefits, training, and work conditions for paid firefighters. Markley (2014) tells us that, “One way to ease tensions may be to find a mechanism to include non-career firefighters in the union.” When they offer to do a job for free, it is a lot more appealing to towns and cities than paying someone to do the same job.  This is certainly a hot topic item and discussion can become heated on both sides.

Introducing Paid Firefighters into the World

            Volunteers can often be blamed for their own demise.  Tebeau (2013), tells us that, “…volunteer firefighters set the stage for the shift from avocation to a vocation, mirroring broader patterns of change in the industrializing nation.”  Paid firefighters were first organized in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Hensler, 2015).   The city recognized a growing need for full-time firefighters and the rising amount of responsibilities associated with them.  Today more and more fire departments are turning over their service to a paid service, due to a lack of interested or available volunteers.  By relying on full-time firefighters, we are guaranteed that they will meet a minimum standard of training and experience due to the fact that they are focused on firefighting as their primary job.   As cities and towns continue to grow and thrive, the additional demands and tasks often fall on the fire department.  Volunteers are spread far too thin and can barely maintain the minimum amount of training in specific fields (Fohner, 2017). In the days of the early volunteers, firefighters had one job; to fight fires.  Now they are responsible for Emergency Medical Services, fire inspections, public education, hazardous materials response, technical rescue, vehicle extrications, and generally any type of emergency when the public doesn’t know who else to call.   Paid firefighters spend a minimum of 56-72 hours per week working on the job.  Volunteers may spend that per month or even per year.  In addition when utilizing volunteers, it is unknown what kind of turnout a department will always get at a call.  It may be one person or it may be fifty.  One thing is for sure with a career department, they will almost always have the minimum staffing on a truck.  Generally this is three to four individuals on each apparatus. Very rarely do we hear of a paid fire department calling for assistance from our volunteer brothers due to the unknown circumstances they may present.  However, volunteers are quick to call for paid firefighters when they become overwhelmed, or inundated with calls.

Taking a More in Depth Look

            Volunteers often don’t get the recognition they deserve for the job they do.  Many times people forget to realize that volunteers are so dedicated to a profession that they take nothing from, other than possibly the personal satisfaction of helping others.  The first volunteers didn’t begin volunteering out of selfishness or thoughts of monetary gain; they did it to help their fellow citizens in need.  This is something I am very proud to say I am a part of.  Birthdays, sporting events, Christmas’, and nearly any other holiday or event is often times put on hold so that these volunteers can run out the door and don the turnout gear to assist someone in need.  This strength and character does not just come from the volunteers themselves, but also their families and support systems that allow them to make such a profound impact in their communities.  If we could pick the greatest assets from each group and build the “perfect firefighter,” one would definitely have to consider taken the volunteer’s heart, drive, and compassion for the job.  Our country would be a much better place if people only had an ounce of what these dedicated volunteers display on a daily basis.

            Paid professional firefighters are often looked at as the pinnacle of the firefighting service.  The majority of techniques, training, experience, and words of wisdom immigrate from the world’s largest paid fire departments.  Places like New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Phoenix all are part of the group of departments that “set the standard” for the rest of the world.  Larger departments have even developed Special Operations groups that respond to natural disasters and other incidents such as the World Trade Center in 2001.  These firefighters have special expertise in large incident management, technical rescue, large area search, collapse rescue, water rescue, and much more. These groups of firefighters are often considered the elite and often set the standards for the rest of the profession.  It is hard to compete when these elite groups set the bar so high. By listening to these firefighters and their experiences we can show the smaller volunteer fire departments across the country what is acceptable and what is not, what works and what doesn’t, and give them the tools to success that they need on a much smaller scale.  By coupling this with the volunteer’s commitment and dedication, we can form an unstoppable and unparalleled force in the emergency services community.  I take immense price in the fact that many in my hometown believe the volunteers are in fact paid firefighters.  This is due mainly in part to the fact that the members behave and act with an outstanding degree of professionalism, regardless of their pay status.

Volunteer and Paid firefighters often work together on the same emergency scenes.  All too often members from both sides fail to realize that they have the same goals, and often utilize the same techniques and training to achieve their goals.  States hold volunteer firefighters and professional firefighters to the same rigorous standards, both at an entry level as well as yearly continuing education.  All of the fifty states, with the exception of South Dakota, fall back on either the ProBoard or IFSAC (International Fire Service Accreditation Congress) standards that must be met in order for one to become an interior firefighter.  By holding to these rigorous standards fire departments should take comfort knowing the limitations and training of their neighboring departments.  Some volunteer departments, such as my own, take pride in being as well trained and versed in the art of firefighting techniques as our paid professional brethren.  This has led to a much better working relationship between the paid department to the north, and our seemingly small community’s volunteer fire department.  This is just one reason paid firefighters should look to our brothers strong of heart as equals in an equally dangerous profession. 

            One way that volunteer and paid fire departments can come together is by training together.  As said before, we fight the same battles and many times only the name of the firefighters or department is different.  Local volunteers in my community have begun taking an interest in the career department to the north.  Members have taken time out of their busy schedules to network with the neighboring department, share insight and training, and make an effort to learn how one another operates.  Both departments have taken in a plethora of useful information and have begun to grow stronger.  This has also strengthened the relationship and each department now relies heavily on the other since we are both located in outlying areas and help is often times very far away.  Members from both agencies have approached this with an open mind and we have been able to teach them things such as how to obtain water when there is no fire hydrant nearby, while they have focused on more technical aspects such as searching for victims on a primary fire floor.  Both groups have a working knowledge of the topics but by letting each department take the lead on different topics, we gain insight to tips and tricks and how we may be able to work with one another effectively. By having an open mind and taking the effort to train and learn the other department, we have set ourselves up for a much greater future together.  Members of the community often stand to gain much more from such a diverse group of firefighters with a common goal.  As a mentor once told me, “Mrs. Brown doesn’t care who turns up when her house is on fire, but only that they put the fire out.”  Words such as this can be applied to this concept and help us to see things from the prospective of our customers.

            So who really is better or more qualified to be a firefighter?  Is it the career man who is either coming or going to a firehouse every day for twenty years, or the shop owner who closes his doors and runs to the station to volunteer for his neighbors and community? Firefighters are called to perform in the most serious, dynamic, and high risk work of nearly any profession.  So what if instead of working against one another, volunteer and paid firefighters worked harder to kill things that are thinning our ranks every year.  Examining things like heart disease or cardiac events, lack of seatbelt use, negligent safety, and even things like suicide can make us better collectively.  We fight the same enemies on a daily basis.  With a nation divided unlike ever before, now is the time for firefighters to stand together and tackle these issues head on in an effort to save lives of not only others, but our own brothers and sisters.  Firefighters do a damn good job at saving lives and being there for the public, but maybe it’s time we focused that focus and drive toward serving others slightly inward in an effort to save our own lives.

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