Cantankerous Wisdom: Paid Guys and Volunteers

By Bill Adams

If you want to stir up a hornet’s nest or play catch with a live hand grenade, bring up the subject of replacing volunteers with paid (permanent or career) firefighters. Morning coffee with the Raisin Squad turned into a donnybrook when the topic was broached. Some white hairs got so upset and vocal, false teeth started chattering, and hearing aids had to be turned down. Being former volunteers, it was natural that volunteer departments were staunchly defended regardless of a lack of staffing, failed recruitment and retention programs, and general lack of interest or time constraints of the younger generation. Some geezers like myself can’t accept that some newbies (AKA probies) don’t have the same degree of enthusiasm we had.

Granted, there are some volunteer entities that enjoy full membership and waiting lists to join. Those that don’t—are jealous. For volunteer departments struggling with crew numbers, the transition to becoming “staffed” can be long, arduous, and at times very contentious. The intent of this column is to look at how some departments addressed the problem as well as those that are anticipating doing so. I take no sides. Whether career staffing is or may become represented by an organized professional association is irrelevant for this conversation and is not addressed. But, it is a topic worthy of later discussion. 

“I reluctantly accept the volunteer train is leaving the station and probably will not be returning.”

I’ve had the opportunity to observe a couple transitions. The first was my father’s former fire company. Seven of the city’s villages had a fire station with an independent fire company (department) operating out of each. At beginning of World War II, dozens of men in each station left for the war, forcing the city to put a paid person in each. The start of the Korean conflict saw another staffing drain and the addition of a second paid man in each. Volunteerism never made a strong comeback. The villages were turning into built-up suburbia. The handwriting was on the wall. The city eventually purchased aerial ladders staffed with a career person for two of the stations running city service ladder trucks. It was difficult for the companies to muster six people to throw a bangor ladder! The city eventually went to a fully career department, and the few remaining volunteers became “callmen” who were paid per call. The transition was relatively smooth albeit difficult for a few of the die-hard volunteers to swallow. Some of them said the only thing that really aggravated them was the new career chief disliked commercial rigs. When the city went paid, he took the commercial rigs off the run cards. Half the stations had relatively new, compliant rigs on commercial chassis with 500-gallon tanks. They were replaced by compliant custom rigs already in each station that had smaller tanks and, in some cases, smaller pump capacities and were 15+ years old! In a few years the callmen were phased out. Before the transition, a structural alarm was answered by two station’s engines with two career firefighters each plus an aerial ladder with one more. If volunteers were available, a few more rigs “might” show up. After the transition, 10 career firefighters, including a duty chief, were on each assignment. That department continued to grow and increase staffing.

Another town’s volunteer entity ran five engines, an aerial ladder, a tanker, and two rescue trucks out of two stations. In the good ole days, most structural calls would empty both barns. Because of a dramatic increase in runs and a decline in staffing—especially drivers—the department was forced to put a paid person in each station. For reasons hotly debated back then, the department evolved from providing first aid with a rescue squad to transporting victims. The start of modern EMS necessitated another paid person in each station and the eventual demise of the volunteers. The department eventually went fully paid, albeit with very limited staffing and it remains so today.

The Squad discussed how some current volunteer departments address declining volunteerism, especially during weekdays. Some employ part-time weekday staff designated a custodian, station manager, mechanic, or administrator that automatically responds to any alarm received—usually driving the rigs. While it may guarantee getting a rig on the road, it may be a false sense of security. Multistation departments might only have one rig with just a driver initially respond from each station. Some have brought back older and, in some cases, too old volunteers just to drive. However, that in itself can be inherently dangerous on a fireground. So much for the two-in two-out philosophy (or mandate). Some local departments with ambulances have either discontinued ambulance service or have fully staffed it. 

Declining membership is a dilemma many volunteer departments face. We kicked around the coffee table the idea that instead of going to an all paid department to just career staff a single apparatus and hope volunteers can staff the rest. Automatic mutual assistance on a first alarm is practiced in many areas but sometimes than can be abused. The geezers couldn’t come up with a solution. The general consensus is that whatever it may be, its going to cost the taxpayers money. Times are changing, and most of us Oldtimers admit we are relegated to just sitting back and watching the train go by.

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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