I recently completed my doctoral dissertation in which I researched the motives to join, expectations to continue serving, and satisfaction levels among volunteer firefighters in South Carolina. Although sampling difficulties limited my research to South Carolina, I would bet that volunteer firefighters in other states are similar. The final draft of my dissertation was 450 pages and therefore my conclusions are a bit more than this quarter’s Carolina Fire-Rescue EMS Journal can contain within its covers. However, I would like to spend this issue discussing one of the conclusions that I discovered as a researcher from the viewpoint of a practitioner (Deputy Chief). It is a conclusion that I am sure many of you have noticed. The numbers of volunteer firefighters are in a state of decline and the lower number of firefighters puts us all at risk — civilians and other firefighters alike.
First, we need to understand the gravity of the situation. I will spare you from the technical details of my research design, although I consider them important. Plainly, I used two volunteer firefighter databases to perform my research based on 2013 data — one state and one national database. Both roughly agreed that there were 13,334 volunteer firefighters in the state of South Carolina.
During my research, I was repeatedly contacted by department chiefs and training officers that their number of volunteer firefighters was inaccurate. In one case, a department was listed as having 380 volunteer firefighters, but only has 54. The end result of these repeated conversations was that there is a maximum of 8,465 volunteer firefighters in the state of South Carolina. That number, too, is likely overestimated as I could not get in touch with every volunteer fire department in the state.
You might be tempted at this point to yell and scream at the database managers for having inaccurate data. If you plan on doing that, you should also yell and scream at your department. These databases are based on data inputs and guess from where those data inputs come. That’s right, it is your department. The inaccuracy of these volunteer firefighter numbers is no one’s fault but our own. It also means that this decline in the numbers of volunteer firefighter’s problem is likely much bigger than we even know — like about a 36.5 percent bigger problem than we know.
Given that the activity level of each volunteer firefighter is not equal, we should consider this decline in the numbers of firefighters we can put on a scene as a threat to our citizens and the remaining firefighters that will be on that scene.
Next, my research revealed that combination — career and volunteer — departments have a significant negative effect on the service lengths of volunteer firefighters. This is not surprising either. In all volunteer departments, the volunteers either go to the call or no one does. There is no bigger civic responsibility than that.
When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you either go get an engine and take it to the fire or the fire burns until it runs out of fuel. In combination departments though, a career person or persons respond apparatus to the scene of an emergency while volunteers frequently report there in their personal vehicles.
This is quite different for the volunteer. In this case, if the volunteer does not respond, the engine still does and action, no matter how inefficient, will still occur at the scene of the fire. Increased call volumes and/or services almost always trigger the addition of career personnel to a wholly volunteer department and almost always, it has the same result — the civic responsibility of the volunteer firefighter changes. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
With the addition of career personnel often comes an increase in training requirements. This is particularly prevalent in departments that add services. For example, the once wholly volunteer department that adds career personnel may decide that they want to begin first responding to medical incidents. This would require the career personnel to train to, at a minimum, an Emergency Medical Responder (EMR -formerly Medical First Responder) level. The department then has a critical decision to make. Should they have their volunteer personnel also train to that level or proceed with the career personnel having a higher level of training than the volunteer personnel? It is quite the double-edged sword.
Volunteers, especially veterans in the department, may question and be resistant to the new training. On the other hand, without requiring volunteer personnel to obtain the training, you begin to establish a separation between career and volunteer personnel and this separation can grow quite large. Many will say that volunteers should receive exactly the same training as career personnel.
I serve in an all-hazards, full-service, combination fire department. Our department’s responsibilities include fire suppression, advanced life support treatment and transport, fire investigations, fire inspections, fire and life safety education, hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction mitigation, trench rescue, auto extrication, water rescue, confined space rescue, high/low angle rescue, and aircraft rescue fire fighting. Career firefighters can spend their entire careers attempting to gain mastery in all of those disciplines and fail. Imagine for a minute, how long it would take a volunteer to complete training in all of those responsibilities.
In some cases, such as advanced life support treatment and transport, it is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible. In many states, paramedic courses are designed for people assigned to 24-hour shift work and in South Carolina, there is no other option but to attend classes, clinical, and ride-along during the day and during the week. You can bet at the point in the paramedic class where two out of three days are class followed by clinical or ride-along, the volunteer’s full-time employer will begin to question why they are only showing up to work one day out of three. Here’s the catch. Very few, if any, career personnel have training in all of those disciplines either. So for those that say volunteer training should be the same as career personnel, I would ask, which career personnel?
While a basic level of training should be consistent for all department personnel, there is going to be some variance between both volunteers and career personnel as well as between one career firefighter and the next. The additional training does not serve to drive a wedge between career and volunteer personnel or to “run off” volunteer personnel. Rather it is a way by which the department enhances its problem solving abilities. When the customer calls us, we should be able to fix their problem whether they are stuck in a vehicle, trapped in a fire or are having chest pain. Not every volunteer is going to become a paramedic, but neither is every career member.
Over the years, fire service leaders have attempted to compensate for the declining numbers of volunteer personnel by lowering performance standards. The idea behind this concept is that we can overcome the decline in participation in training and responses by requiring less participation in training and responses. You should stop and read the previous sentence again.
When I joined the fire service as a volunteer, the expectation was simple. If you missed two training meetings in a row without an excuse, you were kicked off the roster. The responses standard was a little more relaxed due to the bulk of the calls occurring during the day; however, if you missed a call when the rest of the department knew you were not at work, they asked you where you were and why you did not attend the incident. Back then they made it sound like they needed me to respond.
Today, we need to consider what our actions are telling new volunteers when they join and we tell them to come to training meetings or emergencies if they can. We are making it sound like their participation is inconsequential, like it doesn’t matter if they come or not.
If you are a volunteer firefighter, let me apologize on behalf of the fire service and let me be clear. We need you now more than ever. Today’s building fires are not your grandfather’s building fires. Fuel packages are burning faster and hotter inside energy efficient construction that is holding heat better, thereby increasing the chances of flashover and smoke explosions. All of this is often occurring under roofs — and sometimes on top of floors — that are made of thin wooden components that are glued together.
If we add career personnel to the department, we still need you. The training requirements are going to change. They were different 25 years ago than they are today and will be different 25 years from now. They will change with the addition of services or as your department becomes responsible for more tasks. Training is extremely important. It is how you will keep yourself safe, how you will help your fellow firefighters, but it is also how you will solve your customers’ problems, which is why they called.
As call volumes rise in your department, we recognize that you won’t make it to every call. Guess what, neither do the career folks. Finally, let me reiterate the most important point. We are not selling washers and dryers in this occupation. Our customers call us during their worst day and we often have to protect them by putting ourselves between the harm and them. Your participation in the fire service is not inconsequential — it is paramount.
We need you to protect the public, but more importantly, we need you to protect the rest of us in the fire service, both career and volunteer alike. If you are hesitating in putting in a volunteer firefighter application, stop hesitating and join today. If you have left the volunteer fire service and miss it, come back today. If you think you are too old to serve, there are many jobs that need to be done at an emergency, so please join today. If you are considering leaving the volunteer fire service, I beg you to reconsider. Your community needs you, the fire service needs you, and most importantly, your department needs you.
Be safe and do good.