Reinventing the fire service wheel

by Rick. 0 Comments

If you were to ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you there’s no shortage of things of which I know little. However, the fire service is not one of them.

I have been associated with the fire service in one fashion or another since 1965. A long time by most standards, and hence, have seen and experienced many of the requisite volunteer-to-career changes during this period of time.

Although the majority of my time was spent as a career firefighter, like so many others, I started out as a volunteer. Sometimes I was only a volunteer, sometimes only a career firefighter and sometimes both at once. This gave me the opportunity to see the fire service from all sides of the fence. Additionally, I was fortunate to be able to achieve a degree in Fire Service Management which might lend a bit more credence to my opinions.

The Frederick County fire service is currently going through a period of growing pains, specifically regarding the official title of the top position in paid (career) service. From a regional perspective, this position also oversees the volunteer departments to varying degrees, and therein lies the rub.

As I understand it, the main thrust of this particular flap is whether the top spot should have the official title of “Chief.” This title makes sense to me, since if you were to ask the average citizen on the street the title of the top position in the fire department, they are very likely to say it’s the Fire Chief.

I’m sure a case could also be made for the title to be Director or Administrator, or for that matter, the Grand Poobah, since through the years, other jurisdictions have used these titles. Okay, maybe not the Grand Poobah.

It doesn’t matter which one is chosen, since the title is not the real issue – it’s a red herring. My guess is, the real issue with the volunteers who are against the title of Chief, is that they don’t want anyone telling them what they can and can’t do. They currently enjoy a kind of corporate autonomy.

While I can understand the frustration, we all have bosses and the buck has to stop somewhere. Normally, in the fire service, it’s with the Chief. To be clear, volunteer firefighters/EMS personnel provide a necessary and useful service to the community, and in many cases, do it very well. The same can, of course, be said of the career service.

One of the sticking points between the two groups has always been the level of training that each has, or is required, to maintain. Unfortunately, the number of hours required to certify, or recertify on fire, rescue, and EMS courses continues to rise.

From a career perspective, this essentially means logistical and monetary concerns. From a volunteer perspective, it’s more time away from home in addition to the ever increasing response volume, and even as dedicated as they are, one can only volunteer so many hours. So, where does this leave them?

Honestly, I’m willing to bet the vast majority of citizens in Frederick County neither know, nor care, whether the personnel arriving at their emergency are paid, volunteer or a combination of both.

What they want, expect and deserve are polite, professional, well trained individuals, acting cooperatively who will arrive in a timely fashion and mitigate their problem. On that, I believe we would all agree.

Sounds simple enough, so what’s the problem?

The transition from volunteer to career fire department is as predictable as the plot of a Gothic novel. No one particular group is responsible for the change. The diminution of the volunteer service has nothing to do with a sinister plot by either the career service or the government in general. It’s simply mathematics. In a nutshell, it’s essentially all related to call volume and training requirements.

Volunteer fire departments almost always started in small rural communities. They had a lot of members, very low call volume and little in the way of mandatory training requirements. All of this worked well for decades and then the population started to increase and with it, the call volume. Population and call volume are naturally and inextricably linked. Fire stations that used to respond to hundreds of calls are now responding to thousands of them, and nationally recognized training requirements in all aspects of the fire service have increased exponentially.

These two areas put an unsustainable strain on the volunteers and before long, the department is either late responding to calls, or fails to respond to them at all. In order to provide the expected services to the citizens, they decide to hire a couple of career personnel and the rest is history.

Today, in many of the volunteer fire departments, the question is not if you will have career personnel, but how many. As an example, when I was hired, in another jurisdiction, as a career firefighter, there were a total of 29 of us, and today that number is approaching 500 personnel. I guess it could occur, but I’ve never seen the number of career personnel decreased, at least for any extended period of time.

The population of Frederick County is going to continue to increase, the call volume for service will increase, the number of hours required for training will increase, and the number of career personnel will increase. On this there is no doubt.

If the volunteer fire departments want to provide the best service for the citizens of Frederick County, I suggest they stop bickering over titles, and work at staying current with national training standards, and responding to as many calls as possible, for as long as possible. Actually, it’s the only option.

That’s my opinion, what’s yours?

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Rick Godfrey writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

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