What does the future hold for firefighting in rural American communities?
An institution that has been the heart and soul of smaller communities on Delmarva is increasingly facing challenges that threaten its very existence.
That institution is the volunteer fire company.
The volunteer fire company is entrenched in rural Delmarva life, encompassing not only protection of life and property, but also a way of life for its members, an intergenerational organization that is professional, charitable, altruistic and social – in some cases comparable to the glue that holds families and communities together.
The volunteer fire company offers something for children to aspire to, something attainable and very close to home. It is a way of life that’s passed from father to son, mother to daughter and may include an entire family in its various components.
Yet despite this, and because of changes to our economy and workplace standards, this institution so central to life in many of our smaller towns and communities is at risk of disappearing, not because people have lost interest but because of economic forces.
In Wicomico, parity in funding between city and rural fire companies has long been an issue.
But that’s not the primary problem.
The real problem is maintaining an all-volunteer fire department. In the past, employers have respected the importance of fighting fires to the extent that volunteers were permitted to leave work to answer a call. It was probably inconvenient at times, but it was recognized as both important and honorable.
But in the past two or three decades, that practice has been disappearing.
Onley Fire Rescue in Accomack County is in the process of disbanding, largely because it has, in the words of its chief, become difficult to maintain an all-volunteer fire department.
Employers do not – or perhaps cannot – allow volunteer firefighters to leave work with little notice when a call is issued.
And that is the heart and soul of a volunteer fire company. It is one of the highest forms of service to a community. In addition to giving of their time, these firefighters are willing to get out of bed in the middle of the night or leave their workplace to put their very lives at risk to save both property and lives of people they may not even know personally.
They do this without recompense – beyond a sense of satisfaction.
But they, like everyone, must pay bills, put food on the table and provide for their families – and this includes both men and women these days.
Firefighters cannot generally serve once they’ve retired and have more free time, because it is physically demanding, difficult work that requires sharp reflexes and stamina often lacking in older people.
Unlike National Guard or military reserve service men and women, there’s no law that says an employer must allow such service to local volunteer fire companies. And there’s no way an emergency can be foreseen so these firefighters might request the time off in advance.
So now, in a sense, the fate of our traditional volunteer fire companies is in the hands of employers who must decide whether to make accommodations to allow these volunteers to answer calls during working hours.
Discontinue fire service during traditional working hours of 9-5 on weekdays? That’s clearly not acceptable.
Transition from volunteer to hybrid departments, with paid firefighters during normal business hours and perhaps maintaining volunteer forces the rest of the time? That’s the most practical solution, but it will cost a great deal more money than is now available to these rural departments.
Which raises a whole new set of challenges.
What does the future hold for volunteer firefighting on Delmarva? Keep an eye on Onley and other struggling volunteer fire departments, and pay attention to what’s happening in your own community. Speak up if you have suggestions and be willing to contribute to the solution if necessary, in whatever way you can.
Someday your life or your home may depend on it.
Article courtesy of http://www.delmarvanow.com/story/opinion/editorials/2016/07/17/volunteer-fire-companies-struggle/87129504/