Friday, March 13, 2009

What if you had a fire…and no one came?

By Lou Angeli

They are the folks who leave behind family and home at a moment’s notice to help a neighbor or other any person in need. That’s the story of 800,000 Americans who serve as fire-rescue volunteers. Until recently, it was a story that brought pride and inspiration to 80% of the communities in this nation. But times have changed and what was once America’s greatest emergency asset is suffering from a variety of setbacks.

A generation ago, when the fire whistle blew, members raced to the firehouse – almost as if someone’s life depended on it. Every firefighter’s goal was to arrive at the station as quickly as possible, in order to ride out on the first responding engine.

“Within 3 minutes of the alarm being sounded, that firetruck was packed with firefighters,” says Paul Brown, a veteran Delaware volunteer. “There were so many of us onboard that we often left the station with guys riding atop the hosebed.”

In 1976 it was this country’s largest private club. But a generation later, the sad truth is that somewhere along the line many of Firefighter Brown’s colleagues fell off the hose wagon. With membership numbers dropping, the inability to retain well trained personnel and with very few new recruits, the American volunteer service is in dire straits and some say that its downward spiral is irreversible.

With the notion that fire-rescue services are a given, supported by some secret stash of tax dollars, the public never really learns about the hard, cold reality of delivering and managing fire-rescue services in North America’s suburban and rural communities. Citizens expect, and government claims they rightfully deserve first-class fire protection, no matter where they reside. In fact, most citizens assume that the vast majority of firefighters receive a paycheck.

“They think of us as the glitzy, metropolitan image of the ideal firefighter,” says Michael Donofrio, a volunteer in suburban Philadelphia. “What they don’t know is that 80% of us work for free, in departments that often are ill prepared to do an effective job.”

Asking Folks To Risk Their Lives - For Free

Many of North America’s volunteer fire departments are hurting - in a very big way. Problem #1 for volunteer administrators is finding suitable individuals to serve at America’s most dangerous occupation - for free. When I first became a firefighter 23 years ago, I simply filled out a one-page application, submitted it to the membership chairman, and 56 of the 57 members attending the company meeting voted me “in” as a member. I was issued a locker and turnout gear, and responded to my first call within 2 hours of my acceptance into the company.

These days it’s not quite that easy. Prospective members must endure a thorough screening, medical physicals, extensive background checks and face-to-face interviews, before they’re presented to the membership. And in my mind, that’s a real good thing. Some questionable individuals, who were invited to ride the back step in 1976, wouldn’t make the cut in today’s volunteer fire service. But eliminating warm bodies has taken a toll on the system’s overall numbers.

Keeping The Good Ones:

A generation ago, Firefighter I and II, a 40 hour EMT course, and an Extrication class were all we really needed to be certified as firefighters. These days, similar training merely earns a spot in the jumpseat of the last out rig. In an industry that has evolved into a multi-task emergency response system, training volunteers for every eventuality requires a major commitment on the part of individual members.

The question in many minds is, how much more can we ask of our volunteer members?”With families and two jobs it’s a commitment that many just can’t make. For departments, retaining these qualified, trained personnel becomes a real challenge. The reward of the annual banquet dinner or Christmas party somehow has lost its appeal.

Managing Costs With Limited Funds:

“Running a volunteer department has become a real art,” one chief officer told me recently. “…because technology keeps bashing us in the head.” As the fire-rescue business diversifies to include specialty tasks such as haz-mat and terrorism response, the need for expensive, high-tech equipment becomes a costly reality. With these new tools comes another costly demand – additional training.

Volunteer departments on the East Coast are fortunate. There is a huge tax base from which to draw, and the most costly line items – salaries and benefits – don’t appear on the spreadsheet. On Long Island, for example, volunteer departments operate with new, state-of-the-art apparatus, working from stations that are so large and well equipped that they’ve earned the nickname “fire cathedrals.”

Unfortunately, the vast majority of volunteer fire departments don’t enjoy the same level of support as their colleagues in the Mid-Atlantic States. For example, Oceanside, Long Island’s vintage parade pumper might be some other department’s first-out machine. Can you imagine stretching a hose line from a 35-year-old rig, not knowing whether the pump will draw an adequate vacuum, or simply grind to a halt? Or worse yet, responding to the call in protective equipment that was a “hand me down” in 1978.

There are many among us who do it every day. That’s the predicament faced by thousands of departments nationwide, especially those in America’s heartland. When the cards are laid out on the table, it’s clear to see that inadequate funding often forces small town fire administrators to gamble with firefighters’ lives.

Providing Adequate Daytime Response:

But the issue that is common to all volunteer departments, large or small, and regardless of funding, is that of Daytime staffing and response. More than any other issue, it has become the prime fodder that fuels the ongoing debate over volunteer vs. career. And it is this often-heated debate, which has allowed the problems of America’s volunteers to surface in headlines and on TV, bringing the entire system (good and bad) under public scrutiny.

The problem is simple - the solution is not. Simply stated, the volunteer system functions best after 5pm, when the majority of its members have returned from their full time jobs, and are readily available to respond to emergencies. Unfortunately, the fire beast, an inattentive driver or a broken down human heart could care less about job commitments and the 9 to 5 routine of daily life. Serious emergencies strike where they want, when they want, as often as they want.

More than all of the other problems combined, the issue of daytime response is the most important for the volunteer sector to address. For many departments around the country it means bringing paid personnel aboard to serve as the nucleus for daytime response. For others it means consolidation and relinquishing control to a greater authority. Career proponents are eager to begin the conversion, however die-hard volunteers are vehemently opposed to either solution.

But one thing is certain, whether it’s poor staffing or the inability to place rolling stock on the street in a timely fashion; the situation is looking quite grim for the Volunteer Fire-Rescue Service. And many of those who make firefighting and EMS part of their lifestyle and living, believe that it’s the beginning of the end for one of this nation’s most venerable of institutions.


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