Is Something Always Better Than Nothing?

By Carl J. Haddon

As a chief officer, I learned the hard way about the many differences between career suburban and big city departments and rural volunteer fire departments. Having spent the past 10 years of my 30-year career as a chief officer in a very rural volunteer department, I’ve experienced many situations—both on the fireground and internally—that have presented significant challenges and are extremely different from the standard practices seen during my previous two decades in the fire service in a big city.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much written that addresses the unique needs and challenges of rural fire departments in the United States. Much is written about urban firefighting issues, training, command, and so on, of which bits and pieces were often helpful. However, I found that my department could never quite fit or meet most of the standards proposed i.e., National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) compliance vs. small budget, etc.).

With rural/volunteer fire departments making up the overwhelming majority of fire departments in this country, this column will be dedicated to those things that matter to the “rurals” and the “volleys” that often don’t fit into the “city” department mold.

I don’t believe there is a small or struggling department on the planet that doesn’t appreciate it when a big department donates surplus equipment to it. Are there times however, when donated surplus is a bad idea for some departments? I think so.

True story: Big Fire Department A receives a grant for new hydraulic rescue tools. Being the good guys they are and wanting to do the right thing, they donate their usable surplus rescue tools to Small Rural Fire Department B. What could be better? Right?

This is the first time that Department B will have ever owned rescue tools. The tools are brought to Department B by a strapping young buck firefighter from Department A who shows a member how to operate the tools and start the power units. He even goes so far as to demonstrate the tools on an old junker down at the local wrecking yard. He helps load the tools onto two Department B trucks and heads for home.

Fire Department B’s members comprise eight courageous souls with an average age of 68. Its newly donated hydraulic cutter weighs greater than 45 pounds, and the spreaders weigh in at nearly 60 pounds. Department A replaced the donated rescue tools because they couldn’t handle the metals found in today’s new cars and because they were back breakers. Two obvious questions come to mind:

  1. If the tools were too heavy for Department A’s younger career members, aren’t they likely too heavy for many of the older members in Department B?
  2. For the sake of argument, let’s say that all Department B firefighters are in great physical shape and can sling these tools with the best of us. What makes the tools themselves any more capable of doing the job on today’s cars regardless of which department houses them in their apparatus? Any tool on your truck that can’t do the job it is designed to do is a potential liability to your members and your department.

The rescue tool example listed above is just one of many. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited departments with donated PPE, often in excess of 10 years old, in which holes in turnouts were repaired with material scavenged from another set of old gear, and painstakingly hand sewn with regular cotton or poly thread. Is that PPE better than nothing? Maybe, maybe not.

Thinking Out of the Box
I pose these scenarios and questions to inspire “out-of-the-box” thought. In no way are they meant as anything negative. We all do the best that we can with what we have. In the case of the donated rescue tools, maybe Department B could use these donated tools as trade-ins on tools more suited to their needs and capabilities if the budget allows for it. Perhaps a neighboring mutual aid department, if logistically feasible, would be better served having the donated tools on their trucks, in exchange for automatic mutual aid responses to vehicle rescue calls in Department B’s response area. Only you know what can and will work best for your department’s situation. Just be sure to keep the “big picture” in mind.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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