Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Last One Standing

The Volunteer Dilemma
An Ailing System
by Lou Angeli

Unless you live in a large urban area, or highly populated suburban community, chances are that you, your family and possessions are protected by volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. In fact, current statistics show that of this nation’s 1,200,000 firefighters and EMT’s*, fully 80% serve in a volunteer capacity, protecting just over 20% of the total US population.

America’s volunteer Firefighters and EMT’s are extraordinary people…period. Why? That’s simple -- they work at this nation’s most dangerous profession FOR FREE! And you will likely never meet a group of individuals more consumed by an avocation, because theirs is a mission of supreme importance -- to save lives and limit damage to property. They are dedicated to the core and prove it day in and day out by placing their own lives on the line to protect those of others.

Until recently, the volunteer fire-rescue system in this country was virtually self-regulated, with very few government-imposed restrictions. With no clearly defined guidelines, the system was free to adapt to the specific needs of a particular community. And it was the community’s level of involvement and support that determined the local department’s success.

And that was the beauty of the volunteer system -- its simplicity. Neighbors helping neighbors during the worst of times. Note the keyword: "worst". Why? Because the volunteer system was designed to respond to a handful of alarms each month - not dozens each day!

But even the best of intentions sometimes go awry, and the once revered
volunteer fire-rescue system, founded by Ben Franklin himself, is
quickly faltering and is in desperate need of a major overhaul.

Today, citizens expect to receive the same level of emergency service, no matter where they reside in this great nation. When it’s their turn to dial 9-1-1, they assume that well-trained, adequately equipped emergency responders are on the way.

But during the past decade, Fire-Rescue and EMS, both career and volunteer, have been asked to provide more diversified services to the communities that they protect, and that translates to increased training and more qualified personnel. Although it’s a Godsend for the career sector, it’s a real hardship for many volunteer administrators, who are forced to make yet another demand on their dwindling ranks.

There are a number of problems facing administrators of volunteer Fire and EMS agencies, including adequate 24-hour coverage, effective training and sufficient funding. But the two biggest kinks in the system are the recruitment of new members, and the ability to retain existing, trained personnel. Some say that if the current rate of attrition continues, the volunteer system will collapse in twenty years, possibly sooner.

Cause and Effect

How did America’s Bravest get themselves into this nasty jam? Fire-Safety experts immediately point to two culprits: Our rapidly changing lifestyle -- and politics.

“The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker no longer live around the town square", one firefighter advocate recently noted.* “Many people commute great distances to their jobs and they no longer have the time to devote to such noble pursuits." He adds, “There are just too many other demands placed upon them."

As the population shifted from crowded urban areas to more open and pleasant rural communities, volunteer fire administrators hoped to tap into the new-wave suburban melting pot. But the general public showed little interest in a program that asked them to risk their lives for people they didn’t know for free. So, as the population swelled and the infrastructure taxed, the vollies found themselves responding to more alarms and providing much higher levels of service with existing resources and personnel.

Families quickly became accustomed to their split level lifestyle, comfortable with the thought that, like their former home in the big city, local government would respond to their every need. Many assumed that fire-rescue protection would be provided by career staff standing constant vigil behind the closed bay doors of the concrete building across from the Amoco station. And in many cases, that’s what government wanted the citizens to believe. What the locals didn’t know was that the firehouse doors were closed, because there wasn’t anyone at home.

A Change In The Wind

Just twenty-five years ago, the volunteer system thrived on membership rosters bolstered with post WWII baby boomers. It was truly the nation's leading fraternity, with a million and a half members and 33,000 places to call home across the USA.

During the 70's and 80's, the quality of fire-rescue work in the volunteer sector was no longer hit or miss. Volunteer administrators went to great lengths to increase the level of service to the community by assuring that their members were trained to similar levels as their career counterparts. Training schools in Rockland County (NY), Nassau County (NY) and the Delaware State Fire School excelled in such programs, and their curriculum became the benchmark for volunteer training nationwide.

But something happened in the mid 1980's that few had anticipated. As older members (the World War II crowd) dropped away from active service, opting for a well deserved spot in the day room, the next generation of volunteers never fully materialized. The general population had become much more upwardly mobile, and much less interested in volunteer service - especially one with such inherent dangers. And those members who were successfully recruited were usually gone in a few years, rather than a few decades.

Jim Wick, who began his service as a volunteer firefighter on the East Coast 38 years ago says, "If the volunteer fire, rescue and EMS service is to survive and thrive in our dynamic and exciting future, it can not settle for the status quo or even incremental change."

**Today, Wick serves as Chair of the Oregon Governor's Fire Service Policy Council. He urges fellow volunteer administrators to "Honor...and build on the good from the past, but don't attempt to live there."

North Carolina's Ken Farmer, a chief fire officer and nationally recognized fire-rescue educator, feels that role of the volunteer is simply being redefined. "It can be said that people fall into one of two groups -- givers or takers." Farmer says, “There is no doubt that volunteers are clearly members of the givers group."

He adds that most citizens feel a desire to give back to the community, and that we simply need to direct them to the firehouse. n some ways, Farmer says it is like being saved or finding religion. “We find it most often, not because we are consciously looking for it, but because someone else takes the time and care to show it to us."

Change may also mean knowing "when to say when", and in Part 2 of this series, you'll learn about the crucial need for "Immediate Response", specifically how departments are dealing with the dilemma of providing adequate daytime response. In some cases this means introducing career members to the "volunteer" system, a proposal that has purists up at arms, and career proponents chomping at the bit.

Lou Angeli


October 2006 UPDATE: Volunteer Fire Departments in Bucks County, Pennsylvania urged to merge to hasten response times and provide better service. The Intelligencer
November 2005 Special Report: Long Island's volunteer departments provide a small-town service -- at big-city prices. Newsday
November 2005 Special Report: Number of volunteer firefighters is declining. USA Today