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 1736, 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. In 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 Career firefighters are the answer, and the volunteer fire service has proven to be outdated and ineffective in the modern era.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?
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. Concurrently, 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. 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) …
“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. As 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.
Paul Combs, Drawn By Fire, 2019, https://drawnbyfire.wordpress.com