Deeply rooted in the volunteer fire service, I evolved from a system with ample manpower. If you were slow getting to the fire station, you didn’t have a place to ride. We filled cabs, tailboards, and even rode the hose bed to fire calls. I know what you are thinking; I cringed when I typed that as well. What can I say; we have come a long way in regards to firefighter safety in 32 years!
I could write volumes about how technology has changed the fire service, and I imagine in time, I will. But lately, I have been thinking about the issues of manpower. The most irreplaceable commodity of the fire service is staffing, and the willingness and ability of qualified personnel to overcome fear and risk self-preservation in order to accomplish extraordinarily heroic acts to save life, property and community.
How that staffing is amassed differs from community to community, sparking ongoing debates about certification requirements, qualification standards, and career vs. volunteer debates. Originally staffed by the entire able-bodied population, armies of volunteers managed to get wet stuff on the wet stuff, and preserve their communities. Over time, the evolution of the fire service staff has taken many different twists and turns. Firefighting has become more technical, standards of training have been developed to offset liability concerns, and the demographic of the American family has drastically changed. While some communities manage to maintain their fire protection with an all-volunteer staff, many municipalities have adopted a combination-department, where volunteers are supplemented with career staff. Still others have turned into an era where the staffing is primarily career, and supplemented by volunteers. Finally, there are areas (mostly metropolitan regions) that are staffed by career firefighters, and volunteers do not exist.
The city of Reading, Pennsylvania, for example, is home to one of the oldest functioning volunteer fire companies in the country; although their presence on the fire ground is barely noticed. This city of 88,000, people, situated on 6400 acres, is protected by an on-duty staff of just 18 firefighters; a dangerous situation for the overworked staff, their force limited by budget restrictions by the cash-strapped city. Injury rates have increased by 80%, likely caused by the stress of working overtime to fill staffing minimums, and being forced to accomplish the work of several personnel because of the staffing shortage. Volunteer support within the department, while technically present, is realistically non-existent.
Conversely, Dover, The capital of the state of Delaware, which encompasses an area 4 times the size of Reading, but less than half the population, is still protected by an all-volunteer department, the Robbins Hose Company. A recent two-vehicle accident in town brought well over 20 firefighters to the scene, less than 25% of the “available” volunteers on their roster. Dover, however, is still growing. One must wonder how long the tradition of being 100% volunteer can be maintained. All it takes is one bad leader, one poor governmental decision, one tragic event, and the atmosphere could change overnight.
To the unaware bystander, there is no difference to the service rendered by the heroes who arrive on the BRT’s (Big Red Trucks) in each of these towns. The expectation of a professional solution to the emergency at hand by the experts on the scene dressed in the turnout gear does not change from town to town, or state to state. However, to the “seasoned” veteran, who has been involved in and studied the evolution of the fire service, the differences are enormous. I am not choosing sides, or pitching one system over another. I have tremendous admiration for BOTH groups for what they accomplish given the resources they are offered. In Dover, it is clear to me that some of the municipal dollars saved by avoiding the need for payroll associated with a career staff has been spent on equipment. The age, amount, customization, and technological level of the apparatus and portable equipment gives the volunteers the best tools to work with to do their job, all while maintaining the sense of appreciation from the community leaders that likely inspires them to continue to commit their time to their community. Meanwhile, in Reading, the thinning, aging fleet is “urbanized” and the equipment is fiscally selected and well used, but the staff is well-trained, job-tested, and hardcore.
So here we are, in 2012, with the ongoing debates and senseless arguments. Volunteers scoff at career firefighters, thinking they “only do it for the money”. Their self-righteousness clouds the fact that the career firefighters are being asked to do twice the workload with a fraction of the resources. Meanwhile career firefighters critique the “whackers” for inadequate experience, lack of training, and over-chromed “parade pieces”. The battles are senseless and immature. Both sides have very valid points, but you are comparing apples to oranges. It is a debate that I avoid, mainly because I could make a good case for either side. In combination departments, these skirmishes often exist in the same room, among “friends”… brothers who may be side by side in a few moments facing the most challenging predicament of their lives … TOGETHER! It is not a very comfortable place for the weak-minded, and the toll such childishness takes wears out even the most committed public servant over time. I digress; I will save that sizzling story for a later time. No sense burning a bridge I am still standing near.
As the title of this post said, I am not sure where I was going with my thoughts today. So I will wrap this post up with a few general, but time tested axioms. While the evolution of the fire service continues, these few principles remain:
· Every firefighter should strive to be the best prepared that he/she can
· Professionalism is an attitude not an economic standard
· In the, end, we are all trying to accomplish the same thing
· None of us are better than everyone at everything
· If they wear a helmet, one day your life may depend on them
· If YOU wear a helmet, one day THEIR life may, depend on YOU.