Station Pride Articles

Volunteer Servitude & The Enslavement of the Modern Fire Service

Firefighting is perhaps one of the oldest and most well-established institutions in what is now the United States of America. The roots of the North American firefighter can be traced back over a century before the country was even formally established. The earliest days of the American fire service were an organized community effort born of necessity. Throughout the 1600’s cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Jamestown, and New York were ravished by devastating fires, and as the new world began to take shape, it was the responsibility of the community to protect their property, and their neighbors. The American Fire Service as we know it today was birthed of the rattle watch and bucket brigades of the New World, and the foundation upon which it was built was that of community.  Though the first formal volunteer fire department wasn’t officially established until image031736, it was volunteer firefighting that ensured the survival of the new world and paved the way for the formation of the United States of America. In many ways, we owe our very existence to the men and women who selflessly volunteered to protect the construction of the New World

Over the next 227 years the American Fire Service would see a transformation as vast as the country itself. Volunteer firefighting was funded during this period by wealthy merchants and tradesmen possessing the skills and finances to support the service. This continued until 1850 when the first full-time paid firefighters were put into service and the need for more specialized training and standardization began to come into focus. With the country well established the time had come to transition the fire service from a community effort to a professional institution.  1918-bIn 1903 Pittsburg Firefighters became the first firefighters to organize, and IAFF Local 1 was officially formed. This simple act meant to unite firefighters over the common goals of fair wages, improved safety, and overall greater service to their community would ignite the fires of a debate that rages on till this very day…. career vs. volunteer.

After 116 years, the day has come; and the survival of our industry depends on defining our professional expectations once and for all. Career firefighters are the answer, and the volunteer fire service has proven to be outdated and ineffective in the modern era. The professionalism of our craft has been sacrificed in the name of preserving volunteerism for far too long.

Since the beginning, the lens of this debate has been pointed towards the individual firefighter. Today, we must look beyond the individual, and explore in-depth the effect the volunteer model has on our industry as a whole.

It is very simple, there are volunteer firefighters who are masters of their craft, and there are paid firefighters who would struggle to meet the criteria of an apprentice, but in large, financial and organizational support have proven to facilitate a workforce that is exponentially more prepared to act with consistent standardized professionalism and resources; ultimately providing a greater service to the public at large. What proceeds will be an exploration of the system that has enslaved our country’s firefighters and the consequences of a national volunteer model that has failed to keep pace with the growing demands of an industry evolving from firefighting to all-hazards emergency response and mitigation?

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Volunteer fire departments are developing into one of the greatest threats facing the fire service and the public as we know it. This is in no way a reflection of the members who serve them, but rather the system that preserves it. For centuries governments have relied on an expectation that so long as each and every member feels a passion and calling for the craft, those responsible for the prioritization of fire service funding will continue to enjoy a service provided at no cost. They continue to demand this today, ignoring the higher expectations and expanding skillsets demanded of their firefighters. The firefighters are not the problem, but rather the governments and representatives who are taking full advantage of the firemen’s innate inability to say ‘no’ when tasked with helping others.

Volunteers are being overutilized in the interest of cost-effectiveness, that is a fact! State, local, and federal governments are willingly diluting the services provided to their community while standing up at the podium and assuring their constituents that they are providing nothing but the best. They are gambling with peoples’ lives and they are gambling with borrowed fare, boasting an annual cost savings of 46.9 billion dollars on the backs of countless civilian and firefighter fatalities.

The cornerstone of the volunteer debate has always been rural funding. There is a reasonable argument that volunteer fire departments are a necessity for some areas unable to financially support a paid fire department. However, consider this…in the United States there are 29,727 fire departments registered with the US Fire Administration, 19,762 are all volunteer, and an additional 5,421 are predominantly volunteer.  This ‘rural funding’ argument would imply 85% percent of the country is unable to fund their fire and emergency services. It is far more conceivable that 85% of the country has chosen to ‘roll the dice’ that they can get by with volunteers and save the expense associated with a professional fire service. Where volunteer fire departments should only be utilized as a last resort, the statistics suggest it is the primary option.  Why are we so quick to advocate for free labor in an industry tha quite literally deals in life and death?  We have never conceded to this as an appropriate option for police, doctors, teachers, politicians, and a myriad of other professions, so why firefighters? At some point throughout history we decided all of these professions deserved compensation, and somehow firefighters were behind. Today, the expectation of free labor in our industry is not only praised, but expected, demanded, and even defended by the very people who are affected the most. Unfortunately, in our desperation to preserve the historic institution of volunteer firefighting, ideals have remained unchanged while membership has steadily dwindled.

Volunteerism is declining across the country at an alarming rate.  The predominant consensus is that this is a direct result of inflating costs of living coupled with the sheer volume of training required to maintain certification as a firefighter. 10455661_H23174022Concurrently, policy makers are desperately grasping for solutions to preserve the free ride they have enjoyed for generations. Staffing, at all costs has become the priority leaving the industry at a crossroads where journeyman and master fireman intersect.

In the trade professions journeymen are trained to an entry level minimum standard, while a mastery level qualification takes years of continued education and on the job experience to attain. In the fire service, all firefighters enter this industry as journeymen and over time obtain their mastery. Today, those who commit to a mastery level understanding of the fire service are invariably transitioning into organizations that promote their professional development while compensating for their time and dedication. As the working conditions, culture, and funding of volunteer departments continue to dwindle, the masters of the volunteer industry are quietly fading away. What’s left is a constant influx of journeymen firefighters.  While well intended, often these men and women have only completed the mandated minimum. They are authorized to function in the fundamental capacity of a firefighter, yet their comprehension of the craft is still only that, foundational, and there is no more seniority left at the top to elevate that understanding.

This functional gap in skill is largely due to the time commitment required to advance to a mastery level. Career firefighters are often expected to complete a minimum mandated annual training of 190hrs. This is in addition to required EMS training, and advancing skillsets to include rope rescue, ALS, Hazardous materials, TRT and more. To dedicate the time and resources necessary to attain this level of professionalism is unrealistic for men and women who still have an obligation to earn a living wage outside of their service.

Staffing in the volunteer fire service has reached a critical mass. In 1984 808,200 volunteers responded to approximately 11,890,000 calls nationwide. Today nearly the same number of volunteers have been spread thinly across the country as their call volume has nearly tripled at 33,635,500 calls.well In that same time period Maine has lost nearly half of its volunteers, North Carolina has seen a 22% decline, Pennsylvania has dwindled from 300,000 to 38,000 members, and the trend continues on a national scale. This problem has certainly been recognized nationally, but the solutions have been disturbing.

American financiers of public service have scrambled to slow the hemorrhage of the volunteer fire service, and a distressing trend has emerged. With such focus on preserving volunteerism, and inhibiting fair and equal pay, organizations nationwide are simply diluting and mindlessly disregarding the professional standards upon which this brotherhood was constructed. Many departments are filling vacancies with volunteers as young as 14 years old; and organizationally we have resorted to a pool of volunteers who are too young, too out of shape, and perhaps most concerning, unwilling to perform the general functions required of the job. The primary objective today is to simply fill the vacancies regardless of the determent to the public at large.

Chief John Eversole of the Chicago Fire Department said it best. Posted prominently on the walls of his department’s station houses, reads this (serving as a reminder of the expectation the public has in us) …12122636_1051173991583248_5455606178940806627_n

“Our department takes 1,120 calls per day. Do you know how many of those calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls the fire department and says, ‘send me two dumb-ass firemen in a pickup truck’. In three minutes, they want five brain surgeon decathlon champions who will come and solve all their problems.”

This is perhaps the most sacred expectation the public has in us…an absolute trust regardless of the emergency.  The expectation that we are the best, most qualified, and professional option to save them from the worst day of their life, and this expectation will always be assumed until proven inaccurate. In the professional (paid) fire service we have the luxury of demanding and enforcing standards in order to rise to this expectation, but this is substantially harder to do in an organization where participation is voluntary. e280a2-social1As both a volunteer firefighter, and a paid firefighter, I find it not only unacceptable, but insulting and disturbing that volunteer organizations have abandoned the expectations I am required to adhere to.  I have met far too many ‘firefighters’ who will proudly adorn the badge while refusing to shave their beards, attend training, or demonstrate a competence in even the most fundamental of skills, such as climb a 24ft extension ladder.

Policy makers and politicians have always presumed that firefighters will act with the highest level of professionalism, even when standards are deconstructed, and even when there is no opportunity for compensation. For centuries this has been true, and I applaud all the volunteers fighting today to maintain that professional expectation.  The politicians have capitalized on the firefighters’ willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the community they serve, and the public has taken this for granted. Unfortunately, we have entered a new age in the fire service, and it is a direct result of the deconstruction of professional standards in exchange for free staffing. This new age is one where a woman can burn to death for 15 minutes on the phone with 911 while a ‘captain’ sends out Snap Chats from the front yard as his back-step watches on without tools, PPE, or even proper training. Our expectation of heroism and professionalism has been earned in the public eye over decades, but in the age of instantaneous media, that trust can be lost in the blink of an eye. The deconstruction of the trust placed in the nations fire service is inevitable if we accept that volunteer firefighting is the best option, even in the absence of professional standards.

From its very inception firefighters answered the call for this country when we needed them most, and they did so for free, because it was necessary, and it was right. They have continued to do so till this day, at great personal expense to themselves. It is long overdue that these men and women be honored for their sacrifice throughout this nation’s history. How? By treating their call to service as something greater than an expendable hobby, but rather a craft that has been literally forged in fire since Franklin first answered the call to service.  Should we fail to do so, we can expect to see the honor, dignity, and courage upon which the fire service was built, slowly eroded as we grasp firmly onto the concept of a ‘free entity’ while losing our grip on the history of exemplary service the fire service has fought so hard to maintain.

 

 

Credits:

Paul Combs, Drawn By Fire, 2019, https://drawnbyfire.wordpress.com

 

 

 

About Sean Toomey (6 Articles)
Sean Toomey is a second generation fireman proudly serving the Denver Fire Department and Clear Creek Fire Department in Colorado. He is also the co-founder of First Responder Sleep Recovery. Since joining the fire service Sean's utilized his academic background in Fire and Emergency Service Administration and English Education to bridge a commitment between the craft he loves and the educational arenas that will serve to preserve and promote the traditions and values upon which the fire service was built. In addition to his work as a fireman, Sean instructs for the Community College of Aurora, Colorado FireWomen, and the Annual Colorado Firefighters Conference. For Sean, the path to the fire service was paved by the commitment, effort, and support of those who served before him, and he can think of no better way to honor the men who delivered him to the fire department, than to do the same for others with the same call to service. It is not only Sean's pleasure, but his responsibility as a member of the greatest brotherhood in the world, to offer his unwavering support to anyone who is willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of the greater good of their fellow man. The best way he can do this now is through publication and education.

22 Comments on Volunteer Servitude & The Enslavement of the Modern Fire Service

  1. Robert Anderson Jr // July 15, 2019 at 2:57 pm // Reply

    Please read some good information.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Say it louder for the guys in the back!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kris Hester // July 15, 2019 at 4:56 pm // Reply

    I’m applauding and angry in shame at the same time. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chance Olson // July 16, 2019 at 6:40 pm // Reply

    This is the best article I’ve read in a long time. Thank you for putting so many thoughts into words!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a volunteer on a paid call all incident response department in a rural area, I can’t discount that there are many who are content to consider themselves firefighters yet ultimately skip training and fail to meet minimum standards. It’s also very true that volunteerism is nearly non existent, so we take what we can get, but as a true professional at heart, I maintain all necessary certifications to do the job safely and effectively! I find additional trainings to learn new tactics (usually at my own expense, although our chief is a full timer with a masters in FS for another district and has helped greatly in expanding our budget and training allowance) and standards, I involve myself in groups of professionals and volunteers throughout the world to exchange information and tactics, so don’t count out the true volunteer class just yet, we put it all on the line just as any full timer 24/7 365 with no days off…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Steve Larison // July 17, 2019 at 12:36 am // Reply

    You mentioned it at one point in your article, and I’m speaking from a rural area with no capacity for fully a funded fire service. With that in mind, I protest the trend toward demanding the volunteer service have the same level of training, education and certification as the paid service. It’s just not feasible for someone volunteering their time to help their neighbors (yes, that’s the reason this paid FF volunteers in his rural home community) to spend hundreds of hours to attain the same training as someone who does that for a living.

    Let local communities decide how to provide fire protection for their citizen – stop mandating training and certification levels in a “shotgun” approach that hamstrings small communities. We have a hard enough time to recruit ffs that aren’t of retirement age!

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    • Sean Toomey // July 17, 2019 at 3:34 pm // Reply

      Steve, thank you for taking the time to reply to this article. There is one area of your response that I vehemently disagree with. Training for the fire service should absolutely be standardized with aggressive minimum standards. I applaud you for working in your home community as a volunteer. As a career firefighter, I do the same thing in my community. However there is never a circumstance when it is acceptable to lower or dilute minimum qualifications in lieu of staffing. Don’t forget, even in low frequency call areas, the work we do will inevitably become life and death one day. I would never find it acceptable that my family or loved ones are protected by a fire service that doesn’t meet a minimum standard to qualify for the job. It is dangerous an irresponsible to fill rosters with personnel who are not interior rated, or EMT certified (the list goes on). There should absolutely be a national standard that says if you are going to take on this job, then you must meet the minimum, and maintain it before you ever put your gear on a rig. Think about this, if you had a loved one trapped on the second floor of a well involved house fire, and then 2 guys show up with a tanker, full beards, and no interior qualification, would your reaction be “well, at least they had a couple people on shift today?” I can promise you for me that would not be the case, and I think the vast majority of the public is wildly misinformed when it comes to our responsibilities and certifications/qualifications.

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  7. Scott Hofstra // July 17, 2019 at 7:05 am // Reply

    BS! Typical union arrogance! When a city is large enough to support a full time fire service, it will. The community doesn’t have an obligation to provide you with a living. I worked for and with a number of “Volunteer” departments that were more highly trained and professional than surround paid departments. Your holier than though attitude continues to divide the fire service instead of uniting it.

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  8. As both a full time firefighter and a volunteer I feel indifferent about this. They’re is plenty of volunteers that take it seriously and they’re are paid firefighters that look at it as a “wintertime” paycheck. Professionalism is how you put into what you do. Paid or not we do the same job. I just live at the firehouse for 48hrs at a time. That didn’t make me better than the Fireman who shows up in a tanker at 0300 to help and do the same job even though he has to be at his normal job at 0800. Let’s just all get along, made up and do our damn job.

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  9. Peter Holmes // July 17, 2019 at 8:06 am // Reply

    WOW! Well written. Sooooo true, I’m a Volunteer. This has so many truths that are hard to swallow. Try as I might I could NEVER reach nearly 200 training hours for fire service alone every year. I have done years that I have made more than 200 hours but it is not routine and its not fire training only. The only thing I would like to see in the article is a solution. What would your solutions be? Do you have more than one?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Interesting that a professional fire department would snub a small town Department . We train like any other departments to maintain knowledge so we can work safety while protecting our neighbors and our communities. Our equipment is as the same quality and many times better than in the big city’s. I also find it ironic that the author wouldn’t mention that when the So called professional departments would call us ( volunteers) in for additional equipment and manpower And support. In short watch where you ( professional departments) cast stones !

    Like

    • Sean Toomey // July 18, 2019 at 9:02 am // Reply

      I think that you misunderstand the point that I am making in this article, and I apologize if I didn’t articulate that message clearly enough. In no way was I trying to “snub” volunteer firefighters. My problem is with the system not the firefighters and individual departments. If you re-read what I have written you will see that i knowledge that there are many firefighters in the volunteer system who are invaluable. With that being said those firefighters deserve to be compensated for the increasingly high demand of expectations that they are being expected to meet. The system is flawed in that it expects a highly specialized skill be delivered for free, but that is in no way a reflection of the countless volunteers who are masters of their craft. I am advocating for those men and women, not snubbing them.

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  11. Great article Sean. You brought up some great points and gave me a lot to think about.

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    • This debate has been going on for centuries. My take on the situation is communities rely on their volunteers for the service and cost savings provided. For a professional career department to exist in a rural or suburban area such as where I reside, it would either have to be supported on a regional, county level or reorganizing local police departments into public safety departments, as call volumes wouldn’t support having a full time department. I don’t see either happening because of the current dynamics of the region.

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  12. Laurie Higgins // July 19, 2019 at 8:16 am // Reply

    Sean, what, exactly, is your solution? Pay the volunteers? Or pay them more? How much? Do you have a formula? Give me something I can grab onto. Thanks for your great piece.

    Like

    • Sean Toomey // July 19, 2019 at 9:58 am // Reply

      Laurie, thanks for taking the time to read this article. Every individual organization would have a multitude of different things that would have to be taken on in order to transition to a paid fire service. There is no one plan, but I think that it all starts with education. Far too many people in every jurisdiction is under informed in regards to how specialized our skillsets are, and as to how many responsibilities that we are responsible for in a addition to simply fighting fires. The fire service enjoys a national voter approval rating in the 90th percentile, but that relies on educating the public of the skills we have, and the training required to obtain those skills. When we start with education we create the foundation to justify the need for paid firefighters. Next explore financial options outside of tax increases. This could include fire inspections, fire prevention permitting, and auxiliary services such as code compliance for special events. Finally begin the transition incrementally to offset the cost of the transition. Also explore grants to assist in the transition such as the federal SAFER grant. These are a few of the ways to begin the transition to a paid fire service. My simple solution is that a paid fire service facilitates the time and resources to maintain our skills and certifications.

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      • Laurie Higgins // July 22, 2019 at 2:15 pm //

        As a township supervisor, we are building a new fire station and joining with another borough’s volunteer company to share resources. We have seven career FF as well as one fire company within the township limits and four other companies that help. There is a state volunteer incentive fund and we will be offering bunk-in incentives as soon as there are facilities.

        Yes, education is key and many, many township residents don’t realize that we are all relying on volunteers.

        We’d like to keep the volunteer system going for as along as possible because otherwise we’d have to hire 84(!) career staff at millions of dollars. The residents don’t want to pay the taxes and the volunteers don’t want to do the training or shave their beards.

        Everyone is struggling.

        Like

  13. OK, I’m an old school career guy from an all-paid department who for decades worked alongside vollies on incidents that served in nearby combination departments. There is some truth in this op ed (I say op ed as it’s a little weak on facts) but there is a bit of self-serving drama.

    Simplistic approaches to the fire service are like Russian Roulette. I can cite examples where the headlong rush to replace vollies with career personnel resulted in financial collapse, closed stations and quantifiable losses to the public. I own property in one such jurisdiction. Taxes went up and my local fire station closed.

    Out in Nevada, the Fallon / Churchill County Fire Department is all volunteer and has an ISO Class-1 rating. The best my all-career department could ever score was a Class-3. Now that I’m retired, I’m Supervisor of the region’s TLAR team, completely comprised of volunteers and it’s one of the most active (if not most active) teams in the country running, over 200 technical responses in a reasonably busy year. So the real issue isn’t about volunteer versus career, although that is a factor in exceptionally busy urban areas.

    From my four-plus decades of involvement and observation, what is usually lacking is leadership and organizational skills. Members, volunteer and career alike, tend to want to achieve to a higher degree in environments having strong, effective departmental leadership and when they perceive strong support from community leaders. Only a handful of fire fighters are self-motivated in poorly led environments once the freshness of the service wears off. For most of us motivation is sustained by values that start at the top. From my observations, the fire service has started to tip over since leaders were being replaced with managers. You manage problems. You lead people.

    I’m not claiming that there aren’t communities in transition where vollies have traditionally played a principal role but where reliance should start to trend toward more formal staffing, But to make things better instead of risking their getting worse, these concepts have to be applied with leadership and practical vision in order for service levels to actually improve. We’ve seen enough of these transitions crash and burn to recognize that there are deeper issues here.

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  14. Amanda Rosenberg // July 21, 2019 at 10:36 am // Reply

    The vast majority of firefighters are white, which you purposefully left out of the article. If you want to make real positive change then you need to diversify fire fighters, and yes, that means allowing convicted felons volunteer as diversity is a strength. That alone will solve these very white problems that you have helped proliferate!

    Like

    • Sean Toomey // July 21, 2019 at 12:10 pm // Reply

      Amanda, I am not sure why you think that this is a fact that was purposefully left out. The article was about worker compensation, not race in the fire service. This is a very interesting topic that I have a great deal of interest in, but that is a completely different article. I would be happy to have a discussion with you about this, as there are solutions, but it has nothing to do with volunteers getting paid and meeting their training requirements. Additionally, by calling this a white problem, you have dismissed all of the minority firefighters volunteering for their communities. Those firefighters deserve to make a living wage for themselves and their families. As far as your second point, NO NO NO NO NO…..there should never be a time when we are allowing convicted felons to participate in the Fire Service. As an organization we are afforded a remarkable amount of implicit trust in the communities we serve. We are given access to countless different drugs, millions of dollars worth of equipment, and we are invited into peoples homes, left unsupervised, and entrusted with their lives, their health, and their property without question. That trust has been built on decades and decades of professionalism, and it can be lost far more quickly than it was gained. Allowing convicted felons into the organization could significantly jeopardize that trust to the point it becomes a hinderance on our ability to perform our job effectively. I believe in rehabilitation, and I think that restrictions placed on some felons are far too extreme (to the point that they prevent true rehabilitation). This is something that should certainly be addressed in our legal system, but in our industry there is an exceptionally high standard that exists for a reason, and it is completely unacceptable to allow for felons to operate in that system. Unfortunately there are some privileges you loose when you make decision that result in a felony conviction, and the right to be a firefighter is definitely one of those privileges.

      Like

  15. The inevitable answer “ I just don’t have time to volunteer”, suggesting that my life is over filled with extra time to help my neighbors has beat me down till I refuse to ask!!!!!

    Like

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