Over the past year I’ve been contributing to the Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK) blog https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing, a professional firefighter page dedicated to helping firefighters learn and understand modern fire attack principles, based on the modern fire dynamics science studies provided through the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriter Laboratories (UL). SBSK has a following of over 91,000 people ranging from paid and volunteer firefighters to civilians. What I find interesting is how people seem to perceive the credibility of paid vs volunteer fire departments.
I would imagine a large number of us began our firefighting careers as volunteers, whether we admit to it or not. Early fire departments relied solely on volunteers to provide area fire protection. It’s been my experience that some volunteers who go paid seem to disregard their previous status as a volunteer and in some cases, regard volunteers as substandard. I on the other hand have always had an appreciation for the volunteer firefighter corp. After all, this is where it all started for me.
Think back to the old days of the fire service. People lived in small towns and the volunteer fire department was a foundation for community fire protection. Citizens from the communities they lived in became volunteer firefighters to protect the people and property within their own neighborhoods. The fire stations became a common ground for people of all walks of life. They developed the same camaraderie we still see in today’s fire service. They stood with each other to have each other’s back, same as today.
According to the National Fire Protection Association:
• 1,160,450 firefighters from 29,727 local fire departments protected the United States in 2015.
• 345,600 or 30% were career firefighters.
• 814,850 or 70% were volunteer firefighters.
• Most career firefighters (71%) are in communities that protect 25,000 or more people.
• Most volunteer firefighters (95%) are in departments that protect fewer than 25,000 and more than half are located in small, rural departments that protect fewer than 2,500 people.
Whether paid or volunteer, all firefighters are essential to the communities and customers they serve. As the numbers indicate, many jurisdictions across America still rely on volunteers to fully staff their fire departments. The fire service has evolved since its inception with the addition of paid and combination (paid and volunteer) departments. Still, volunteers give of their time, outside of their normal responsibilities to their families and to their careers, and without compensation for their devotion to the citizens they serve. That takes a special person, but then again, all firefighters are unique.
I admit, there can often be broad discrepancies between paid and volunteer fire departments, such as compensation, funding and resources to support facilities, apparatus, personal protective equipment, emergency medical and fire suppression tools and equipment, new technology, state of the art training facilities, consistent training in a variety of areas to prepare for knowns and unknowns, effective leadership and experience, and other differences. Minimum staffing can be very different, as well as delayed responses and water supply challenges some face in rural jurisdictions.
Despite our differences, which are often out of our control, we are one fire department family. Now, I get labor unions and others may disagree, but the fact is each firefighter comes to the profession to serve others. Generationally speaking, there are differences among us, though we’ll save that discussion for another time. But again, despite the differences we are all called to serve others.
Going back to the blog conversations, when a volunteer department does a good job on the fire ground, many seem to preface their acknowledgement with, “Pretty good job for a volunteer department” or something similar, while paid departments just get the compliment. Although, when people think fire ground crews did a poor job, paid and volunteer alike get criticized nearly equally. People do not seem to be short on judgement and criticism. Volunteers still appear to get more scrutinized though.
We’ve all likely seen plenty of examples of good and bad fire ground operations from volunteer and paid departments, that’s because we are all human and subject to making mistakes along the way. I’ve yet to see a fire incident that did not have room for improvement. You know the saying, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t cast stones.” We all make mistakes, and when they happen on the fire ground they look the same, whether paid or volunteer. Much of the time our catastrophic mistakes consist of a number of common key contributing factors, as is illustrated in many NIOSH Line of Duty Death reports.
A good day on the fire ground is a good day for all of us, just as a bad day on the fire ground is a bad day for all of us. When we lose a Brother or Sister in the line of duty, we all gather and take a knee in support of their loss. We all try to learn from their incident to avoid similar circumstances. It’s a family thing.
Yes, there are differences among paid and volunteer fire departments but remember; we are still part of a singular fire service family. We should strive to do our best to show equal respect to our colleagues, whether paid or volunteer.
NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine, www.fireengineering.com and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK), https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/.