Cantankerous Wisdom: History Repeats Itself—Again

By Bill Adams

Over coffee the other morning, the raisin squad’s topic was the slow response of some of the local volunteer companies. Discussing is the same as moaning and groaning. It took them forever to get a rig on the road. I don’t think that department ever answered up. Even at night they can’t empty their barn. It ain’t like it used to be. Naturally, we had all the answers. Half the white hairs thought the problem was unique to the area and was something new to the volunteer fire service. Bear in mind, these guys think “the area” only includes fire departments they can hear on their scanners or where they can drive to in one day and get home before dark. I found the following article regarding “the situation with the volunteer fire departments” and brought it in to stir-the-pot.

“The abuses complained of have originated from the disproportionate number of the youthful and imprudent members of the fire-engine companies who have taken the places deserted by the older, wealthier, and more sedate citizens. Disinclined to social hilarity, to arraying themselves in uniform, and to joyous excursions abroad, and annual meetings at home, the older members have left the management of the operations for extinguishing fires in the hands of the youthful and imprudent. Under these circumstances, it is not a matter of surprise that frequent excitements and excesses should have occurred, originating from the maddening impulse of stimulating drinks which have been injudiciously distributed by those having property endangered near the scenes of conflagration.

“The time has now arrived when the reorganization of a new system must be forthwith adopted. It has become an absolute necessity that the most respectable and wealthy citizens most enroll themselves as formerly and take into their own hands the charge of protecting their own property. Or if they choose to continue to remain quietly in their beds, they must pay an adequate number of men for their services to work for them.

“It must be far pleasanter to every generous mind to pay an equivalent in taxes for the services of the workingmen of the city in extinguishing fires than to feel the weight of obligation for an undefined debt of gratitude. Embarrassed by this sense of gratitude for unrequited services of the firemen, the City Council have made numerous grants of large sums for their gratification, amounting to nearly $50,000 in two years, in the purchase of new and fanciful fire-engines, new and spacious halls, resembling European club-houses, decorated with curtains, mirrors, chandeliers, gildings and paintings etc. These appropriations have been profitlessly—not to say demoralizingly and perniciously—wasted for the purpose of sustaining the unpaid system, which has consequently been a costly one.

“Where there is no reward for obeying orders, and no penalty for disobeying them, there can be no regular discipline in the organization of the members of the Fire Department, and no certain reliance on their cooperation. They individually are independent of control and feel themselves to be at liberty to stop to dispute about a precedency of position, or to fight whilst a conflagration is raging.

“The old system being actually disorganized, it now remains to carry into effect, energetically, the system of a Paid Fire Department.” It went on to say on January 25 the City Council adopted a resolution abolishing the volunteer system.

The raisin squad wondered if they tried recruitment and retention. They proclaimed going paid will be the coming thing. One old geezer asked who wrote that; it’s old fashioned. I said so are you. Then I told him it was written by a Zachariah Allen in 1854 (published by Conley & Campbell in 1985). He was okay with that until I asked if he knew Zachariah back in 1854. He got mad and left. He’ll forget it by tomorrow morning.

Getting back to reality, I saw a recent advertisement showing the front end of a custom cab and chassis. It had a common light configuration each side with a quad light assembly featuring two headlights immediately above an outboard warning light and an inboard directional light. On the passenger side a shiny chromed six-inch suction elbow obscured ⅔ of the warning light. Old timers, don’t get your bunkers in a twist by saying there’s more than enough warning lights on fire trucks today. Fire departments pay big bucks for fire apparatus. Apparatus manufacturers supposedly only install warning lights that meet NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, requirements. Light manufacturers certify that their lights are NFPA 1901 compliant when installed per their instructions. Although purchasers have the right to specify that the apparatus manufacturer certify NFPA compliance, they seldom do and accept the warning light manufacturer’s word that it is. It’s obvious the warning light is blocked by the suction elbow. Why do fire departments allow manufacturers to circumvent any of the NFPA 1901 requirements that they pay dearly for? 

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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