For generations, the American paid-on-call firefighter has faithfully stood as a civic sentinel, tirelessly safeguarding the wellbeing of an ever-growing nation’s citizenry. At the behest of a pager’s shrieking siren, and with nary a pause, these brave men and women charge toward the danger. Day or night, paid-on-call firefighters risk life-and-limb to serve their communities.
But to more accurately describe the abyss into which the American paid-on-call firefighter stares, one has to define just what exactly a paid-on-call firefighter is. To many—including scores within the industry itself—the composition of the American fire service is black and white, a world replete with easily-discernable contrast. There are volunteer firefighters and there are career firefighters, “vollies” and “full-timers”.
However, within the fairly loose amalgamation that is the volunteer fire service, there lies a further distinction. There are volunteer fire departments, staffed by those who receive no compensation for their services. Then there are paid-on-call departments, staffed by members who receive payment on a per call, or per activity, basis. And within the latter population, both the extent and frequency of the compensation can vary wildly. Some might be paid a flat rate per call, while others may be paid by the hour for each applicable event attended. And yet, the offering of marginal compensation isn’t without rationale.
To represent the prior century’s expanding “outer rim” of locales, governments needed to implement an organizational first responder model that was not only capable of withstanding the pressures of modest call volumes, but could also avoid the so-called economic excesses of a career department. The fruits of their cost-saving efforts resulted in the paid-on-call system, a veritable stop-gap measure. A bridge running atop the highly-populated gap between the barrenness of rural America and the unceasing commotion of the city.
In short, America’s suburban paid-on-call fire service is the decades-old product of urban sprawl’s tapering remnants, a bastion of fire service evolution. A now fleeting bulwark—both organizationally and geographically—that almost spiritually separates the industry’s purely volunteer forefathers from their professionalized descendants.
Yet now, after untold years of admirable service, suburban America’s paid-on-call fire service is exhibiting the marked signs of widening stress fractures. And the maturation of a confluence of consequential events—demographic shifts forcing societal evolution and an alteration of the industry’s very nature—virtually necessitates the embrace of a substantive organizational change.
According to the latest dataset provided by the United States Fire Administration, roughly 12 percent of the American fire service’s 1.2 million members are paid-on-call. Moreover, paid-on-call fire departments predominantly populate the suburban areas of America. Combined, these facets do well to foreshadow the veritable pinch America’s roughly 146,000 paid-on-call firefighters are actually in.
Since the mid-to-late-1980s, when volunteerism and its paid-on-call cousin reigned supreme, the United States has undergone a noticeable demographic shift, and its organization-level public safety stewards in the suburbs are struggling to keep up. In 2014, the Pew Charitable Trusts released research indicating that over the course of the preceding three decades (1984-2014), America’s population of volunteer firefighters (a frequently-invoked catch-all term that encompasses paid-on-call) has declined by approximately 12 percent.
Over the same span of time, the whole of the American population has increased by just over 35 percent. Additionally, and to put the crisis facing the suburban paid-on-call fire service—the epicenter of America’s radical demographic shift—into proper focus, Pew research shows that the suburbs have outpaced their rural and urban peers in population growth, harboring a 16 percent uptick in residents since 2000. But perhaps most worrying of all, the National Fire Protection Association reported that call volumes have increased by a near three-fold margin over the same aforementioned 30-year period, rising from 11.07 million calls in 1984 to 31.64 million in 2014.
Yet the paid-on-call sector’s mounting strain is not merely rooted in the operational challenges foisted upon it by simple population growth. No, it’s also compounded by the more subtle societal shifts occurring within those populations as well. The first distinct category of this shift is represented by the physical properties of the populations themselves. As a whole, and as relates to call volume explosion, Americans are not only becoming more sedentary and unhealthy, as CBS News noted, but are also becoming a more “aged” populace according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Secondly, the overarching economic environment conducive to the generation of paid-on-call firefighters is becoming increasingly inhospitable. Like its purely volunteer brethren, paid-on-call fire departments have long relied on a staffing apparatus which found its predictability or reliability in the fact that the bulk of its membership was never widely dispersed outside of the agency’s jurisdiction. Yet now, and as Fortune Magazine has reported, jobs are migrating away from the suburbs and into urban centers.
On top of that, the rugged and technical-minded labor force that once served as the undisputed bedrock of the suburban paid-on-call fire service, blue-collar workers, are rapidly becoming an endangered species. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently noted, blue-collar labor’s share of the nonfarm employment market declined from 31.2 percent in 1970 to 13.6 percent in 2016. According to CNN Business, the manufacturing industry alone has lost some five million jobs since 2000.
Moreover, there’s a growing dichotomy within the American family unit which further exacerbates paid-on-call firefighter availability. In 2015, the Pew Research Center released research showing that the two-income family had become the rule, rather than the exception it had been for generations. For example, in 1960, only 25 percent of married American couples with young children saw both spouses working. By 2012, that figure had risen to 60 percent.
Collectively, these shifting demographic patterns have altered the very nature of the paid-on-call fire service. With the proliferation of enhanced fire prevention technologies and methods, and as the aforementioned NFPA statistics indicate, the incidence of fires—the industry’s hallmark call and the basis for the bulk of its members’ training—has been nearly halved over the last three decades. Meanwhile, an aging and increasingly unhealthy populace has resulted in the number of medicals nearly quadrupling over that same period.
So let’s put this all together and take an inside glimpse. Let’s assume that you’re a member of a modestly-sized suburb’s paid-on-call fire department that runs approximately 600 calls per year, compared to the probable 50-100 calls a typical rural volunteer fire department may run per annum. Right out of the gate, your training requirements mirror those of your full-time career counterparts. And with NFPA 1001 as the standard, you need a minimum of approximately 200 hours of comprehensive initial training. The tally grows to about 340 hours if your department requires an EMT-Basic medical certification instead of the increasingly-obsolescent Emergency Medical Responder certification (and its academy runs a 24-hour “practicals” class). That figure can climb perhaps as high as 380 hours if a Fire Apparatus Operator certification is also required, which is now commonplace.
After that, between calls, drill, continuing education, community events, and fire safety outreach, you’re staring at about a 750-hour time commitment in the first year. When combined with a 40-hour work week (excluding “day job” transportation time), you have a 55-hour work week. Now if you’re an established paid-on-call firefighter who has been freed of the probationary shackles, your weekly combined work week may drop to about 50 hours worth of personal life-straining commitment. And when that pager sounds several times per day, you’re expected to provide tactician-level mastery of everything from fire suppression to technical rescue, including emergency medical services that compliment those offered by paramedics.
In a desperate attempt to improve the viability and the service levels of a chronically over-extended paid-on-call system, and to ostensibly assuage the fears of tax-conscious politicians, the leadership of suburban fire departments have overwhelmingly rolled-out the “duty crew” concept. In this concept, a paid-on-call department institutes a shift work system in which a station, or stations, are staffed with a four or five member crew.
The aim is to offset the inherent unpredictability of being beholden to a pager with the stability of a semi-defined schedule. Unfortunately, most agencies implement this policy in a piecemeal manner with existing limited staff, which only worsens the strain. In best case scenarios, the greater sustained staffing demands of this model, particularly when combined with the deepening existent shortage of suitable recruits, also leads to an appreciable appearance of stress fractures.
In the end, for so many suburban locales dominated by paid-on-call fire departments, the writing is on the wall. And while the paid-on-call system had remained serviceable for decades, it’s intrinsically an intermediate and transitional organizational model not well-suited to navigate today’s complex and onerous suburban fire service environment. It cannot—in any practicable form—forever withstand the soaring pressures placed upon it.
Ultimately, in the name of both passion and service, paid-on-call firefighters will give their departments everything they have, to their own detriment. They’ll routinely short themselves on sleep to make calls, scuttle family obligations to train, and imperil relationships to serve their department. However, the question for local leaders is, do you let them when several incarnations of a more conscionable and efficient full-time solution exist?
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