Firefighter Crisis in America – The Volunteer

img_1794In the rare occasion that you didn’t know, among the many things Benjamin Franklin accomplished in his life, he established the first Volunteer Fire Company in Philadelphia.

Franklin and four friends founded the Union Fire Company on December 7, 1736. There were 26 members of this first brigade. Each member agreed to bring six leather buckets to carry water (1st Engine?) and two stout linen bags (1st Salvage Covers?) to rescue endangered property to every fire upon first being alerted of the emergency. In addition, members had pre-assigned roles;

Water management (Driver Engineer?)

Property protection (Truck Duties?)

Putting lights in neighboring windows to ensure an organized and prompt reaction

The Union Fire Company was immediately popular and they soon had more volunteers than they needed. When they reached 30 members, they refused new volunteers and instead told them to organize a new brigade. The more brigades, the more city could be covered. It worked.. Philadelphia has never had one of those massively destructive fires like the Chicago Fire of 1871.

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Since that time and up to now, neighbors, farmers, local merchants, and the general public handled firefighting duties because their communities could not afford a paid firefighting force. If you lived in a big city then there were the necessary larger paid departments.

In the last 20 or so years the number of volunteers in each volunteer department has dwindled or recruitment and retention has become extremely difficult. This has forced fire department leaders to find creative ways to meet their missions while balancing increased demands, diminishing rosters and inadequate funding.

The reasons for the diminishing volunteers are many and include;

  • The culture is changing; people aren’t as interested in volunteering
  • Expanded training requirements – because they are demanding, time-consuming and have a fee
  • Must attend a firefighting academy and gain certification – then comes the department probation period
  • Paid firefighters usually have separate specialized roles while volunteer departments train everybody to do every task. Some applicants leave before they start when they learn of the requirements.

These are just a few reasons and each town most certainly has other issues because of demographics.

Many volunteers come to the job with a strong sense of community dedication, but they often burn out. Yesterday’s volunteers learned on the job. Today, they’re required to meet minimum training requirements. It’s a matter of personal safety for the volunteers.

In addition, they’re asked to deal with so much more than a burning building.  Today’s volunteer is proficient in first aid, chemical spills, house fires and wildland fires.  The bottom line – it’s a lot to ask of a volunteer.

The U.S. Fire Administration has seen the decline since the 1970s.  That’s when economic pressures brought a surge in dual income families. Wage earners became hard pressed to find time for work, families and household chores. Volunteer firefighters began leaving. In 2007, The Fire Administration commissioned a study to define the problem and search for a remedy.  Lack of time ranked right at the top of the reason why volunteers are falling away.  The study’s conclusion: “From a management perspective, there’s not much the organization can do to address this issue.”

Really? That’s the best conclusion they could reach? Wow! And they get paid. Where do I sign up to make these brilliant statements for money?

I was never a volunteer. Okay, I said it. But I have always respected the largest firefighting force in the United States. In 2011, there were 1,100,000 firefighters serving in 30,145 fire departments nationwide and responding to emergencies from 55,400 fire stations. Of those firefighters, 31% or 344,000 were career firefighters and 69% or 756,000 were volunteers – over twice as many volunteers. Somewhere along the way paid departments began calling themselves professionals. I agree with that, but the same people looked down on volunteers as if they were something less. With the required training and certifications and expectations from the citizens they serve, I believe every firefighter in the U.S. is a professional. So the question remains, how do we turn around the decline?

Volunteer chiefs need to refer to their men and women as professionals’ everytime they get a chance, and then say it again. If they say it enough and explain the reasons why, people will begin to believe it. Probably harder is to get with local paid departments and offer to take part in training exercises. This allows more firefighters to be in the training exercise. As the paid firefighters realize the volunteers are just as good as they are, respect should follow.

Physical fitness – In Haines City, there was a physical fitness policy before I got there. And it showed. When we trained with other departments we were always out-performing them and lasting longer because we were in shape. This only helps in building mutual respect.

As I said, I was not a volunteer and do not claim to know all the reasons for the decline in recruits. But as a firefighter, I wanted to be respected and appreciated. I believe that is a great starting point to begin to turn things around. 756,000 firefighters can’t be all wrong, and there has got to be a lot of good ideas out there.

Stay Safe – Everyone Goes Home

Thanks to

William Jolley has 37 years of experience in the fire service with 20 of those years in a management position. William was the Fire Chief of Haines City, Florida, a city of Approximately 20,000. Prior to that William was the Assistant Chief of Saint Petersburg, Florida, where he worked for 35 years.

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