What if you had a fire…and no one came?

By Lou Angeli

They are the folks who leave behind family and home at a moment’s notice to help a neighbor or other any person in need. That’s the story of 800,000 Americans who serve as fire-rescue volunteers. Until recently, it was a story that brought pride and inspiration to 80% of the communities in this nation. But times have changed and what was once America’s greatest emergency asset is suffering from a variety of setbacks.

A generation ago, when the fire whistle or siren blew, members raced to the firehouse – almost as if someone’s life depended on it. Every firefighter’s goal was to arrive at the station as quickly as possible, in order to ride out on the first responding engine.

“Within 3 minutes of the alarm being sounded, that firetruck was packed with firefighters,” says Paul Brown, a veteran Delaware volunteer. “There were so many of us onboard that we often left the station with guys riding atop the hosebed.”

In 1976, it was this country’s largest private club. But a generation later, the sad truth is that somewhere along the line many of Firefighter Brown’s colleagues fell off the hose wagon. With membership numbers dropping rapidly, the American volunteer service is in dire straits and some say that its downward spiral is irreversible.

With the notion that fire-rescue services are a given, supported by some secret stash of tax dollars, the public never really learns about the hard, cold reality of delivering and managing fire-rescue services in North America’s suburban and rural communities. Citizens expect, and government claims they rightfully deserve first-class fire protection, no matter where they reside. In fact, most citizens assume that the vast majority of firefighters receive a paycheck.

“They think of us as the glitzy, metropolitan image of the ideal firefighter,” says Michael Donofrio, a volunteer in suburban Philadelphia. “What they don’t know is that 80% of us work for free, in departments that often are ill prepared to do an effective job.

Asking Folks To Risk Their Lives - For Free

Many of North America’s volunteer fire departments are hurting - in a very big way. Problem #1 for volunteer administrators is finding suitable individuals to serve at America’s most dangerous occupation - for free. When I first became a firefighter 23 years ago, I simply filled out a one-page application, submitted it to the membership chairman, and 56 of the 57 members attending the company meeting voted me “in” as a member. I was issued a locker and turnout gear, and responded to my first call within 2 hours of my acceptance into the company.

These days it’s not quite that easy. Prospective members must endure a thorough screening, medical physicals, extensive background checks and face-to-face interviews, before they’re presented to the membership. And in my mind, that’s a real good thing.

Some questionable individuals, who were invited to ride the back step in 1976, wouldn’t make the cut in today’s volunteer fire service. But eliminating warm bodies has taken a toll on the system’s overall numbers.

Keeping The Good Ones:

A generation ago, Firefighter I and a 40 hour EMT course were all we really needed to be certified as firefighters. These days, similar training merely earns a spot in the jumpseat of the last out rig. In an industry that has evolved into a multi-task emergency response system, training volunteers for every eventuality requires a major commitment on the part of individual members. The question in many minds is, "how much more can we ask of our volunteer members?”

With families and two jobs it’s a commitment that many just can’t make. For departments, retaining these qualified, trained personnel becomes a real challenge. The reward of the annual banquet dinner or Christmas party somehow has lost its appeal.

Managing Costs With Limited Funds:

“Running a volunteer department has become a real art,” one chief officer told me recently. “…because technology keeps bashing us in the head.” As the fire-rescue business diversifies to include specialty tasks such as haz-mat and terrorism response, the need for expensive, high-tech equipment becomes a costly reality. With these new tools comes another costly demand – additional training.

Volunteer departments on the East Coast are fortunate. There is a huge tax base from which to draw, and the most costly line items – salaries and benefits – don’t appear on the spreadsheet. On Long Island, for example, volunteer departments operate with new, state-of-the-art apparatus, working from stations that are so large and well equipped that they’ve earned the nickname “fire cathedrals.”

Unfortunately, the vast majority of volunteer fire departments don’t enjoy the same level of support as their colleagues in the Mid-Atlantic States. For example, Oceanside, Long Island’s vintage parade pumper might be some other department’s first-out machine. Can you imagine stretching a hose line from a 35-year-old rig, not knowing whether the pump will draw an adequate vacuum, or simply grind to a halt? Or worse yet, responding to the call in protective equipment that was a “hand me down” in 1978.

There are many among us who do it every day. That’s the predicament faced by thousands of departments nationwide, especially those in America’s heartland. When the cards are laid out on the table, it’s clear to see that inadequate funding often forces small town fire administrators to gamble with firefighters’ lives.

Providing Adequate Daytime Response:

But the issue that is common to all volunteer departments, large or small, and regardless of funding, is that of Daytime staffing and response. More than any other issue, it has become the prime fodder that fuels the ongoing debate over volunteer vs. career. And it is this often-heated debate, which has allowed the problems of America’s volunteers to surface in headlines and on TV, bringing the entire system (good and bad) under public scrutiny.

The problem is simple - the solution is not. Simply stated, the volunteer system functions best after 5pm, when the majority of its members have returned from their full time jobs, and are readily available to respond to emergencies. Unfortunately, the fire beast, an inattentive driver or a broken down human heart could care less about job commitments and the 9 to 5 routine of daily life. Serious emergencies strike where they want, when they want, as often as they want.

More than all of the other problems combined, the issue of daytime response is the most important for the volunteer sector to address. For many departments around the country it means bringing paid personnel aboard to serve as the nucleus for daytime response. For others it means consolidation and relinquishing control to a greater authority. Career proponents are eager to begin the conversion, however die-hard volunteers are vehemently opposed to either solution.

But one thing is certain, whether it’s poor staffing or the inability to place rolling stock on the street in a timely fashion; the situation is looking quite grim for the Volunteer Fire-Rescue Service. And many of those who make firefighting and EMS part of their lifestyle and living, believe that it’s the beginning of the end for one of this nation’s most venerable of institutions.

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Comment by Tim Jackson on March 15, 2009 at 6:41pm
Hey, It happened in Mattydale and Hinsdale, NY this past month and in Camillus. All over "turf" and Chiefs being mad at each other and playing "boy games." Hoses burned down and people almost died! Nice example of Vollies Egos getting in the way of doing the job right. And they want to be treated like Professionals! No wonder Graner and his RFG Associates are bad mouthing the vols in Onondaga County. Good ole' southern PAB from a Yankee turncoat.
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on March 14, 2009 at 9:30pm
Interesting blog Lou -

The truest statement of the entire article is "The problem is simple - the solution is not." However, for many communities, both the problem and the solution are complex. Their challenges include economic conditions, age related demographics, housing costs and so forth.

Nonetheless, I contend that some of the solutions are simple. They're right in front of us. The challenge is in determining what we're going to do about it.

StrtCopr refers to a necessary wake-up call. I couldn't agree more.

I've said before that the large majority of the challenges we face are back at the firehouse - not on the fire scene. Yet, we continue to focus the majority of our time, money and energy on equipment and apparatus - on all the things that are useless without the people to operate them.

No longer can a volunteer fire department live the luxury of focusing solely on whether or not the individual is meeting the needs of the organization. Today's successful organizations will survive by focusing on whether or not the organization is meeting the needs of the individual and the entire team. In return, the organization will receive greater support from its members and the resulting success.

We can control our own destiny or have it controlled for us. History has taught us that.

The real question is: "If not us, who?"

Thanks for writing this insightful blog and jump-starting this important discussion.

Stay safe. Train often.

www.tigerschmittendorf.com
Comment by morris washburn on March 14, 2009 at 12:52pm
Lou , you are right as far as getting in new blood , most of the VOLUNTEER Depts. are the ones who have families in now. I believe inrecrutment and I feel all should do the same training . As far as the higher ups !! Well it comes from our commisinors or City/County administrators, if any one of them would like to see how a good Dept. works then they should get off thier butts and work with a fire dept.then they can see how thier money is spent. I dont think it willwork here as far as 2 depts. working like that . Due to the payed will try to over run VOL. out . The biggest problem is why a small community cant get help is "back ground checks"if you have a person whom is an arsonist would you let them in !! NOT me !! Here is 1 thing most of you for get ... WE have a MUTUAL AID system !! WE need help we call , if we get 5-7 more ppl. well gee that is a bonus !! I would like to be anEMT ,but cant due to not enough time in day for me . I drive a school bus ,I have 4 hrs between runs or I take on other runs during day .At night I am home with my wife ,she is my 1st priority. As I said m0st of the newbies are in by they reach 15 if they want ,but some ppl are expected to be . To keep ppl on board you have to keep intrest high .I see the problem all the time Lou ,but I cant do anything about it . Right now we have a budget of $200 left till July and when we get the money we are broke again !! So if my friends house burns !! Will I be there !! YOU can COUNT on that ,because I know you will come to help me !!
Comment by Lou Angeli on March 13, 2009 at 11:48pm
Chad and Morris -- The volunteer system will continue to be around for many years in one form or another, because, as Morris suggests, the citizens aren't ready to pay for a fully career system. I believe that strtcopr is referring to what some volunteer administrators agree is part of the problem. That is, many in the upper ranks of the volunteer service have refused to acknowledge that there is a problem at all. Luckily, here in Delaware, individual fire companies have been very aggressive in keeping qualified members aboard -- and bringing in new blood. Combine that with the fact that Delaware's volunteer system is becoming a modified combination system, with career daytimers and paid EMS personnel operating from most stations. But it's a different model than those you see in Maryland and Virginia, because the volunteer administrators, not a governmental agency, manage the career personnel.
Comment by Chad Furr on March 13, 2009 at 10:46pm
AMEN Morris!!!!! We do what paid FF's do with half the manpower, half the resourses, and NONE of the pay. If it were not for us "volunteers with our heads in the sand" where the hell would 99.9% of ppl be in this country???
Comment by morris washburn on March 13, 2009 at 10:13pm
I think hes PAID !! But I am a proud VOLUNTEER for 30 yrs and have 2 sons in the ranks also . I know where Lou ,is coming from . In all the Depts. I have been in we have to work to support our families and work to support our DEPT. as well . We done boot drives, door to door campains ,car washes , a ham dinner and dance ,gun shows , all just to many to name that we did for OUR money ,to run OUR DEPT, WE might be small but we can kick some ass . The COLD hard facts is WE dont have a dam DIME handed to US ,just the blood we leave behind .So as far asI am conserned ,I do THE SAME job as a PAID FF just I dont get rich !! So all my brothers and sister WE do the same thing !! So just remember I do FUND raisers for my money .and I leave my sick wife at home alone . So dont tell ME TO GET MY HEAD OUT OF THE SAND !!
Comment by Chad Furr on March 13, 2009 at 7:42pm
strtcopr. what does your comment mean? I am lost. Could you please elaborate on the "The volunteer fire service really needs to pull their heads out of the sand and face the cold hard facts soon. " part of it. THank you
Comment by Chad Furr on March 13, 2009 at 4:58pm
BRAVO BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thank you so much would love to print this in our local paper.

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