Hardly a week goes by when a story doesn’t pop up on my Facebook news feed or show up on some news agency page talking about the shortages of volunteer firefighter, EMS or rescue personnel. All these news agencies report the one thing we all know, volunteer firefighters are a dying breed, but very few reporters print any solutions. It seems the burden of finding new recruits always seems to fall on the shoulders of the department. We’ve all heard the reasons people don’t volunteer: It takes to much training…. I can’t afford to take time from work…My employer won’t let me respond…. I live to far from the station. Many of these reasons are valid and understandable. While I don’t think that lowering the training requirements is the answer, working together we can find solutions to the other reasons. It is well known that 69% of all Firefighters nationwide are volunteer and save taxpayers $140 billion annually. Many if not most communities cannot afford to provide fulltime paid responders. While the emergency services providers need to ensure that they do their part to provide professional and well trained responders they are not the only ones responsible for recruiting. I feel that the local community, state and federal government can all do their part to help fill those empty lockers.
There are things that local municipalities can do help give incentive for volunteering. While most department do not have the budget to pay responders the local government can things to show their gratitude to those that give up their time. Developing a property tax credit is one way they can help…. most everyone you talk to complains about paying taxes. Local municipalities can provide a tax credit to property owners who volunteer, after all those volunteers are saving the rest of the local taxpayers’ money.
The State government can do things to help provide incentives as well. They can reduce or eliminate vehicle registration fees for volunteers. In my state, they charge a higher registration fee for having firefighter, EMT or rescue plates. Lowering the registration fee will have a small impact on the State fund but will significantly help the volunteer. Providing tax credits to employers who allow their employees respond to emergencies during the work day is another way to help with department recruitment. It used to be a source of pride for companies to have their workers on the fire department but due to economic changes it is harder for those companies to be productive when being shorthanded. A tax credit could help soften that and encourage volunteering. Another potential idea to help volunteer departments is having the state set up retirement programs for long term volunteer responders. Wisconsin has a program where the state matches department contributions. Then after a predetermined number of years of service the volunteer becomes vested and upon reaching retirement age them money is played out.
I think the Federal government can step up and help the volunteer responder as well. A program like the GI bill could help provide incentive to volunteer serving the community. If a person dedicates a minimum number of years to the community the federal government could help pay for college via grants, interest free loans, etc. It would encourage young people to serve their local community and give them real life perspective. The federal government could also provide tax credits to people who buy homes in areas that have been identified as needing responders. I know there are already urban revitalization programs in existence but very few apply to areas protected by volunteers. Tax credits could also go to employers who encourage and allow employees respond to emergencies. The federal government already funds departments thru grants and other staffing programs but once again many volunteer organizations don’t qualify for staffing grants. Instead of funding the department to hire people we could encourage companies to have their employees volunteer.
I feel our society would be better off with a renewed sense of community and patriotism. I think you become more compassionate when you help someone from a different walk of life. Bringing more people into the fire services family will make for stronger, more understanding, healthier communities. Perhaps if we encourage young people to serve the community some of our countries other issues will work themselves out. I think that by the government investing in these ways it would be a win/win…. volunteer emergency services will be able to secure people and society would be better.
Recently a neighboring department had a fire that involved 2 structures. The department called for mutual aid from 2 neighboring departments and together made a great stop with no one getting hurt. Later, after the situation was mitigated the Chief used social media to express how proud he was of the team for their aggressive stop. Well as happens many times on the internet it lead to a discussion about why must we be aggressive…..aggressive gets people hurt…….its irresponsible to risk firefighter lives. It led me to consider is being aggressive reckless? In a time when we fight fewer structure fires and have faster burning buildings is it wrong to be aggressive?
As I delved into this topic I feel like we must first understand the meanings of “aggressive” and “reckless”. The Webster Meriam Dictionary defines Aggressive as:
1a: tending toward or exhibiting aggression
b: marked by combative readiness
2a: marked by obtrusive energy and self-assertiveness rude, aggressive personality
b: marked by driving forceful energy or initiative : ENTERPRISING an aggressive salesman
Webster also defines reckless as:
1: marked by lack of proper caution : careless of consequences
2: IRRESPONSIBLE reckless charges
Notice these two words are not synonyms, neither word is in the definition of the other. They in fact have no where near the same meaning.
So can we be aggressive without being reckless? First what is an aggressive fire department? In my mind an aggressive department is a culture. The upper level command staff has empowered line officers to be decisive, supports their decisions, and provides them the training to make sound decisions. This “aggressive” department trains their firefighters from day one to be prepared. they spend time on topics like building construction, fire flow path, pump operations, scene size-up, and understanding engine and truck company ops. You won’t hear phases like ” That won’t happen here” ……” I took that class years ago”….. or my personal favorite” We’ve done it this way for 25 years.” They are always striving for perfection knowing its unattainable. When these firefighters pull up on scene he come off the truck, dressed out, tool in hand, ready to go to work. The officer makes a size-up, The engine guys stretch the line to the door, the truck company prepares for the search and ventilation. Decisions are made and everyone is working off the same sheet of music. How many time have you been on a scene that was like a grade school band concert? You know what I mean, yeah, all the kids are playing their instrument and the notes on the sheet but the timing is off and it doesn’t sound right. Well, an aggressive department works and trains so the timing is right and everyone knows their job and when it needs to be done.
What is a reckless department? I don’t think there are many intentionally reckless departments out there. I think most departments are well intentioned. I do feel like a department that doesn’t spend time on the previously mentioned topics may end up making reckless decisions. Without understanding building construction or flow path how can IC make the determination whether and interior offensive attack is appropriate, whether to send a vent crew to the roof, or are there tenable spaces for potential victims. Not having skilled firefighters who are well trained and having set procedures regardless of conditions is reckless, not having well trained officers is reckless, having to wait for Chief, Assistant Chief, or Battalion Chief to start identifying strategic objectives is reckless. I was standing with a group of firefighters one afternoon at an event. A longtime firefighter whom had been an officer was telling me of an incident where they rolled the engine with himself, a 6 month probie, and a guy who was issued gear 3 days earlier. They arrived on scene and made an interior, offensive attack. When I asked why his response was that that’s the way they fight fire and you need to be aggressive with your attack…….That’s not aggressive, its RECKLESS!
I will go to battle with an aggressive firefighter who comes off the truck, tools ready and is smart enough to recognize potential hazard. A passive, unconfident firefighter make me nervous. Many time we see a professional athlete injured when the outcome has been decided and the effort is not where it should be. I want my crew to be giving 100% effort 100% of the time. I want them to be knowledgeable, physically fit, and confident. I want them to be AGGRESSIVE.
I remember sitting in our living room and telling my wife I wanted to join the Fire Department. I’d seen the look she gave me before. Married guys know exactly what I’m talking about. I told her “I like helping people, and it sounds like fun.” She had reservations, but after a few days and more conversation she agreed that I should apply. A few weeks went by and eventually I got a call from the chief to schedule an interview. I was told to be at the station at 7:00 PM and I would sit down with a few of the officers and discuss the position. To say I was excited was an understatement. After the interview and discussion with the Chief I accepted an offer to join. After the discussions with the chief and other officers I thought that I knew what I was getting into, but there are so many things that no one told me.
NO ONE TOLD ME that when I walked through that station door and saw those huge intimidating trucks and smelling that strange aroma of wet fire hose it would become a part of me in such a short amount of time. I never participated in high school team sports; it didn’t interest me. I was content to hang out with friends or spend time outdoors hunting; however, shortly after joining, something inside me switched. I felt a part of a team. These strangers that I had only known for a few short weeks made me apart of them. They spent their free time showing me how to don my gear, where tools and equipment were located on the trucks, and how the department operated. I had long time company officers and members just off probation take me aside and mentor me. They answered my endless number of questions, taught me about the command structure, and were patient with me during training sessions. They took notice of my enthusiasm and steered me away from trouble, but most of all they made me free welcome. Even as a new member that had no formal training I never felt as a second-class member. It is safe to say that I had become a part of the family. While I am only 3 years into this challenge, I try to be approachable. I want new members to feel comfortable coming to me with questions or concerns. We have a duty to train and mentor the newer firefighters so the department continues to grow and develop into a first-class organization.
NO ONE TOLD ME that when I joined the department my family also joined the department. I may have been naïve about the challenge I was about to undertake, but I thought I was the only member in my home that was going to spend time at the fire station. It became apparent very quickly that firefighters and their families spent time outside of the station together. They went out for dinner, had movie night at the station, celebrated birthdays together, and helped each other when needed. In a very short time my wife and I were invited into these activities. I think getting to know the other members and their families help put my wife’s mind at ease. It helped her feel more comfortable when I left to go to someone’s emergency. She developed confidence in the rest of the department and gained a support group in their families. Unless you are a part of emergency services no one understands what, it’s like to have the pager go off at 1:00 am for a structure fire or see a Facebook post about a bad MVA and know your loved one is involved, but after getting to know the other families she knows she isn’t alone. She knows she isn’t the only one tossing and turning waiting for her firefighter to return from a serious call. She has new friends that appreciate the time the fire department requires. She has people that understand what it’s like to be stranded at the gym because your husband’s pager went off. While she is my support network, she also knows that she has a support group as well. I feel it’s important for fire departments to include the whole family not just the responder. Without the support of the family most wouldn’t or couldn’t volunteer.
NO ONE TOLD ME that I would enjoy EMS as much as I do. When I spoke with the Chief about joining, the topic of EMS came up. I was apprehensive about being a first responder. I envisioned myself fighting fire and cutting cars apart; never did I think about band aids and blood pressure. It became obvious that if I wanted to be a member and be involved I needed to become an EMR. I went through the training, passed the national registry and started running medical calls. I quickly realized how much I enjoyed it. It is a completely different feeling helping someone in this way. I tell people that fighting fire is a huge rush, indescribable, unless you can experience it firsthand, but providing medical care gives me an immediate sense of satisfaction. People are generally grateful when you arrive at a medical call. Sometimes the reason they call isn’t what you or I consider a true emergency, but to them on that day it’s their emergency. Occasionally a reassuring voice or a hand to hold is all that’s needed, but those are the times when we have the most impact on people’s lives. We have a 50+ year member on my department who has had a profound impact on many of us, he has a saying, “compassion never goes out of style.” That simple saying is something I try to keep in mind every time I go to a medical call. I have tried to impress my feelings on the newer members that come into the department, letting them know that very few calls have the immediate impact on people’s lives that a medical call does.
NO ONE TOLD ME that the more I train the more I realize I need to train. I will admit that when I started I was eager to finish my training so I could just run calls. It didn’t take long to realize that the required training was the bare minimum. I learned right away that being certified doesn’t make you qualified. I also realized the value of attending classes/seminars put on by outside groups or agencies. The knowledge that these experienced instructors bring to these opportunities is mind blowing. I’ve had instructors that were involved in the events of 9/11/01, presenters who are the expert on their field, and trainers who were so passionate about the fire service you couldn’t help but be inspired. I personally try to attend 2 to 3 extra conferences or seminars each year, not only do these skills make me a better firefighter but I also network with other firefighters. Talking shop with other firefighters, you learn about new techniques, tools or even additional class opportunities. Attending these opportunities not only made me a stronger firefighter but also help the entire department by putting more knowledge tools in the toolbox. The adage that “irons sharpen iron” is very true in the fire service.
There are so many things that no one told me. I think it’s important to pass the things I have learned by experience onto the members who come after me. I try to be a mentor to the new members the way I was mentored. Hopefully by doing this, I make my department better and the brotherhood as a whole, stronger.