Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Fickle Public

Volunteers at the mercy of the communities they serve

by: Lou Angeli

(New Castle County, DE) -- I became a firefighter on a dare. I lost the bet and have been calling myself a volunteer ever since.

It was 1973, and the smoke from Wilmington’s “King Riots” (Martin not Rodney) had not yet cleared. Even though the rioting had been suppressed in a matter of weeks, the city remained a “police state” for several years, with heavily armed National Guard and State Police patrolling Wilmington's neighborhoods each and every night. Whether the constant military presence was really justified is still being debated in the First State. But one thing’s for sure - the riot patrols were a constant reminder that the city had somehow gone bad.

Civil disorder had ruined a huge section of town, and well populated Irish, Italian, Polish and Hispanic communities surrounding the devastation, were being abandoned for the safety and comfort of the city’s western suburbs. My parents and our family followed the lead.

The same scenario was being repeated up and down the East Coast as cities along the I-95 corridor lost families (and tax base) to suburban communities. In most cases, growth came so quickly to suburbia that government was ill prepared to cope. With the emphasis on providing better roads and a more appropriate infrastructure, Fire-EMS-Rescue protection was the last thing on most legislators’ minds.

“The Volunteers will handle it!”, was the reaction from many county seats and state capitals. But there was an inherent problem with their thinking. Volunteer fire departments were originally designed to protect small rural communities - not extensions of the big city.
Me and Citizen Fritz

Still in college, and a cub journalist for the local newspaper, my editor had assigned me to develop a feature expose’ on Delaware’s volunteer Fire-EMS system for the first-ever edition of Delaware’s first Sunday newspaper.

It seemed that some very vocal residents of a rapidly growing Wilmington suburb, Pike Creek Valley, were complaining that their community was being denied adequate Fire-EMS-Rescue protection. “The Valley” was a no-man’s land, developed on rolling farmland, miles from the nearest stores, churches and volunteer fire station. The community's mouthpiece, “Citizen Fritz” claimed that under the best of conditions, response time to “The Valley” was in “excess of 15 minutes.”

Although I didn't want the story, the editor claimed that I was best suited for the assignment, because I was already a Reserve Firefighter in the Wilmington Fire Department’s CD incubator system. He also knew that as a career advocate, I’d make the story controversial.

While researching the story, the local volunteer department’s President suggested that I join the company as a “probationary member” to get a firsthand look at how the volunteer system worked. But there was a catch to his proposal. If my report was favorable to the volunteers, I’d have to join as a full-blown member.

The Pike Creek Valley community lobbied heavily at the county and state levels to have a career fire station built - the first ever in Delaware, outside the city of Wilmington. Politicans promised quick action, which came in the form of an “outside” study. The results from Princeton, “not enough call volume to warrant a career station...’ but ‘the community is a prime candidate for its own volunteer station.”

At first, County government suggested that the existing volunteer agency relinquish the “valley” section of its district to the local community. And both the county and state agreed to fund the new entity as Delaware’s newest department. But there was just one problem, a big problem, as I reported in that very first edition of the Sunday paper, “ one in Pike Creek Valley wants to man their proposed new volunteer fire station.”

Since then Delaware’s Mill Creek Fire Company has built, recruited personnel for and manned a well equipped fire station not far from the spot where I first interviewed “Citizen Fritz”, whose complaints of inadequate volunteer service were among the loudest. 25 years later, I’m told that “Fritz” has never stepped foot in the station that he so vehemently demanded.

“Citizen Fritz” is just one of millions of citizens nationwide, who enjoy the tax payer friendly protection of a volunteer system, but who are unwilling to join the “community of givers”, a term coined by Chief Ken Farmer of North Carolina. In most cases, “takers”, like Fritz, are also unwilling to dole out the money needed to support the career system that they believe they deserve.

So the controversial decision as to “what level of protection a
community deserves” is not one that we as firefighters make, but
a choice that falls smack dab on the laps of the citizens we serve.

“Fire, Rescue and EMS volunteers continue to provide a valued and low cost service in many communities, as they have for hundreds of years.” says volunteer activist Jim Wick, who was a member of Mill Creek Fire Co during the Pike Creek controversy. Today, Wick heads the Oregon Governor’s Fire Council and reminds us that “the volunteer service is still a good service, but it’s a changing service.’ He adds, “We need to keep the focus on service and cost to citizens.”

Case Study - America's Fire Station

What would be the cost to citizens of converting their local volunteer agency to a career system? That’s the question that we posed to a half dozen fire service administrators, both career and volunteer. Their answers were remarkably identical, and is best illustrated by using the Pike Creek Fire Station, the one that “Citizen Fritz” demanded, as an example.

The Pike Creek fire station is operated as Mill Creek Fire Company’s Station #2, and serves as a remote sub-station to its main headquarters, which is still located in the heart of the original community, Marshallton, Delaware. The department operates as a corporation and is contracted by the state and county to provide emergency services. When the department was founded 75 years ago, it was a small farming community with less than 1,000 residents living in the district.

Today, the department serves a community of nearly 60,000, covering 17 square miles and a wide variety of risks. Annual call volume for both stations is in the thousands, and increasing each year.

Although the department has 300 members on its books, Station #2 is covered by 24 or so “active” volunteers, who are commanded by two company level officers and an Assistant Chief. During daytime hours, the department employs a core group of “paid” members to man and operate first-out equipment. The members of Station #2 operate a BLS ambulance, quint, rescue pumper and brush rig.

Even though “our administrators” disagreed on manning levels, (some suggested three and even two person engines) for the sake of argument, it was agreed that two firefighter-EMT’s would be assigned to the ambulance, with three other firefighter-EMT’s and and a shift commander assigned to cross-man the fire suppression and rescue rigs, 24x7, 365 days a year.

The committee arrived at the calculations by various methods and formulae, but the final average cost to the community came in loud and clear. Converting Station #2 to a career system would run a little over $840,000 per year, excluding capital expenditures such as training, PPE, tools and equipment, apparatus and building maintenance. Add to that amount projected overtime to cover vacations and sick leaves, a solid benefits package, and of course, a pension program, and the final number is well over $1 million. That’s the cost of running one small volunteer station, as a career job.

The benefits of such a career model are obvious. Immediate response by career professionals, day or night, as opposed to a delayed home response by well trained volunteers. In an ideal world, with no financial restrictions, my choice would be crystal clear.

But the ideal world only exists on paper, and the hard, cold reality is that the general public is not ready to bear the financial burden for the perfect system. At the same time, the chances of persuading John Q to devote a dozen hours each week to what we consider to be a noble profession are slim to none.

Without the level of dedication provided by local community volunteers’, says Chief Rod Carringer of Indiana, ‘fire rescue services in this country would be forced back upon state, local and federal governments.” And the thought of inviting federal management at the local level has many administrators shaking in their boots.

“If the federal government intervenes at the local level,’ notes Chief Michael Perkins, ‘the quality of protection will be based on a community's ability to lobby in Washington, not at the town hall. And that’s where small communities will lose out.”

Forcing The Community To Get Involved

“We have to take stock and the populace must make up its mind, which way they want to turn?’ says John Adams, recently retired LA City Battalion Chief. “If they (the community) want quality fire protection, they’ll have to pay for it one way or another.” He adds, “Money makes the system work, and that is the bottom line.”

“If volunteerism is replaced by a career system, we may have better coverage and quicker response’, says Pennsylvania volunteer Penny D’Ottavio.. “But one thing’s for sure. The local community will finally be forced to get involved -- by paying higher taxes.”

And so the debate over career vs. volunteer is not one in which we, as firefighters, should be engaged in at this time. In a very real sense, the antagonist in this story is not the stubborn volunteer or the head strong career advocate - it is public apathy.

Change is blowin’ in the wind. Will change in the fire service be a breeze, or forced upon us like a gail force wind? Only the general public can determine how hard this wind blows. But one thing's for certain. We can affect the outcome of the approaching storm by taking our message to the street, and allowing the public to decide.

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