Let’s face it, the basic response to any emergency, albeit fire, emergency medical service (EMS) or rescue is simply the firefighter. Certainly the hardware necessary to meet a challenge, whether it is motorised apparatus, pumps, powered equipment or simply hand tools, is useless without the firefighter. Personnel are the real assets for any emergency operation.
Getting sufficient amounts of person power to a scene is always a problem. No matter if these persons are full time career, part time, or volunteers, they must be ready, willing and able to do a job and, hopefully, be equipped to accomplish that job regardless of the circumstances. After all, fire is fire and gravity is gravity, in the big city or in the country. The challenges may vary in magnitude and frequency but they are pretty much the same for every Fire Department (FD). The Laws of Physics are pretty consistent and must be prepared for and handled.
The old adage that ‘fires are not put out with water, but with dollars’ is alarmingly true. It costs to equip, maintain and operate any emergency service. In a career department it is not unusual for 90% of the budget to be applied to personnel. Once you have taken the cost of fire apparatus and the equipment into account that leaves little to provide the tools and operational expenses necessary to deliver adequate services.
In many areas of the United States it’s simply too cost prohibitive to support a career department. The funding, the population density and government resources simply aren’t adequate to provide a full time FD which is why the volunteer fire service is the predominate type of FD in the USA.
Whether they be called volunteers, paid-on-call, part-timers, retained or simply responders, they are pretty much the same, but they are all dedicated to serving their communities and spend countless hours training, preparing and responding. They may be strictly firefighting but may also do rescue, EMS, disaster response or any number of other efforts. The old saying “if there is any kind of problem, call the Fire Department” is well used.
In America the Volunteer Fire Service comprises some 89% of firefighters operating out of an estimated 48,800 stations. Most of these, some 70%, have one station, 16% have two and 14% have three or more. It is estimated there are over 1.25 million fire department members throughout the USA. The first FD in America were volunteer, founded by such notables as George Washington (the first President of the US) and Benjamin Franklin back in the late 1700’s. The first paid or career fire department didn’t come about till the 1840’s and even then only a few of the large cities had them. And it’s an interesting mix even today as several fairly large cities with some high population densities have volunteer departments, maybe with career drivers for daytime response when volunteers may be at their regular jobs. Conversely some rather small towns have full time, career departments.
Today the funding for these volunteer departments is as varied as the departments themselves. Some are entirely tax supported, others entirely self supported through fund raisers and donations, with others literally selling memberships – as did the very first volunteer departments. And there are numerous grant or award programs, some from the Federal Government (such as the AFG Assistance to Firefighter Grants) and others from private companies. The competition for such funds gets rather hectic at times, but every little bit helps.
An even bigger problem is getting people to volunteer their services. With so many demands on families and individuals from various groups and personal responsibilities it is always a problem to persuade people to find the time to train, respond to calls and to be generally active in a FD. The relatively low population density in the areas served by the FD limits the pool of available persons willing and able to participate. But, regardless of one’s age, abilities, interests, backgrounds and such there is always something to be done. Not everyone is a ‘firefighter’ but would have various jobs and activities to accomplish at an emergency scene. With increasing demands from various agencies regarding training levels, certification, legal standards, and ultimately FD requirements there is a limit to the resource a person can and will devote to a FD. While all training is good and a well-trained person is desired, the physical, available time, and capabilities must be tempered with safety and competent service.
As previously discussed, the resources available to the smaller volunteer departments are limited which exacerbates the devotion, personal contributions (time, money, effort) to make a FD function.
But the overriding consideration is service to the community and the citizens served. In a smaller community there is a high probability that anyone calling for emergency services is a neighbour, a friend, or even kinfolks. Hence the emotional aspect of responding is great and can be personally upsetting in a serious situation. There is also sometimes the problem of a responding Firefighter having a personal problem or conflict with persons requesting service. Such needs to be monitored and controlled so that no problems are generated.
The need for good leadership, while always important in an Emergency Services organization is even more so in a volunteer organization. In a career Department it may be said that management has the ability to “push” members . . . employees . . . to get things done and to operate. But in a volunteer organization the ability of management to push is really turned into a “pull” type style. A leader must always be in front, but a volunteer leader must cope with all the typical problems of management but without one employee impetus, that of a pay check. And it is much more likely a career organization will have an employee Union or organization to deal with, whereas a volunteer organization is more on a personal basis. While there are interpersonal politics in any group, the volunteer organization is usually quiet in this regard. The concept of “neighbours helping neighbours” hopefully precludes empire building.
And the Volunteer Firefighter is so many times ‘on their own’ in that backup personnel, equipment, medical help, and other urgently needed resources are simply not available. Even if additional resources are coming, very often they have a long way to come and may not really have the resources needed nor be familiar with the area and environment. A strong, unified incident commander must be present and be capable of making decisions on the spot. Freelancing of equipment and personnel must be discouraged and controlled.
It must be recognised the same hazards, dangers, challenges and needs occur in the smaller towns and rural areas as they do in the bigger cities. The ultimate size of the problem and the frequency of occurrence may be smaller, but the spectre of disaster is always present. Mother Nature will do a number on the department and personnel regardless of the size of the FD or whether it is a career or volunteer organisation. Competent and active leadership must be in effect at all times to ensure safety and effectiveness of operations.
Recently a series of tornadoes raced across Mississippi and while several hit larger populated areas, equipped with career departments and significant local resources, other smaller areas were hit particularly hard. One town of about 6,500 population was especially devastated with 10 deaths, several missing, 295 homes destroyed, 168 having major damage, 82 more with minor damage, 102 with some damage and so far uncounted total monetary damages, the local hospital destroyed, and several manufacturing facilities completely destroyed. The local FD, while a combination career/volunteer department with only two firefighters on shift, was overwhelmed, although all their apparatus and station was spared damage. There were no real additional resources in 30 mile radius, although upon learning of the severity of the tornado damage and scope of injuries every volunteer department and city road and utility crews for miles around responded with manpower, chainsaws, rescue gear, floodlights, tools, and anything that could possibly be used for rescue and help. It turns out that this was an EF4 tornado and the most powerful one to hit the USA for some time. The magnitude of this situation was simply staggering. Certainly various government agencies, complete with the National Guard, responded but it took hours to get on scene. Ultimately there was plethora of agencies and groups, a veritable smorgasbord of acronyms’ and resources, all converging and somewhat setting the local VFD into the background.
All of this response was voluntary and without direct cost to the affected municipality and area. It was simply ‘neighbours helping neighbours’ which is typical of the philosophy of volunteer FD – all done in the spirit of serving neighbours and communities. Funding for these operations, reimbursement for some respondents, and financial help for those affected was forthcoming, but the immediate situation put a strain on local resources.
From the philosophy and actions of the Founding Fathers in America, the Volunteer Departments have grown and prospered to be the backbone of the American Fire Service. No doubt, the same philosophy is prevalent throughout the world in various guises, types of organisations and abilities. The need for service is obvious, with Volunteers stepping into the breach to provide for their neighbours.