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Volunteer Voice
by Robert Rielage

How to rid fire service of rivalry with a name change

Changing the name of volunteer firefighters would better reflect the fire service mission and reduce rivalry

By Robert Rielage

Throughout the years, I have often drawn comparisons between the U.S. fire service and the U.S. military. Both are trained to handle and react to emergencies; both rely heavily on teamwork; both are a fraternal; both use a chain of command; and both must be innovative on the fly to handle new or unanticipated challenges. 

For these and other similar reasons, many departments such as North Hudson, N.J., have found that military veterans usually make good firefighters.

During a recent visit home, our oldest son and I had an interesting discussion while taking a walk in our neighborhood. Dale is a captain in the U.S. Navy, as well as a career certified Virginia firefighter. 

Earlier in his Navy career, he also served as a Firefighter and EMT for both the Ponte Vedra, Fla., and Virginia Beach, Va., fire departments when not at sea. Later while stationed at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks, he used his training to attend to the wounded and to help suppress the fires. 

On that walk our discussion centered on the use and need for the military to rely heavily on its reserves (including the National Guard) to perform its mission. We also discussed how many of those deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years have been from reserve units. 

The answer quite simply is the military today would have difficulties meeting their mission and worldwide commitments without the help of the reserves. 

History of reserves
We have all seen numerous news stories that show a community welcoming home a returning reserve unit or how individual families welcome home a returning family member. After Vietnam, two things changed the U.S. military.

First, with the elimination of the Selective Service, or draft, the number of active duty personnel in each branch of the military was greatly reduced. The reduction in forces was second only to the downsizing that occurred after World War II.  

Second, the military began to plan around the reserves to augment their regular forces should there be any extended military engagements or conventional war. In fact, during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the 1990s, the reserves were called upon to play a pivotal role in driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait. 

During those intervening years between Desert Storm and the 9/11 attacks, the responsibility of the reserves also included some highly specialized technical roles.

Specialized training
For example, the USAF Reserve continues to play a daily role in the tanker refueling of aircraft deployed around the world. The Army, Navy and Marines have specialized reserve units ranging from mountain warfare to encrypted communications.

In fact, the lines between active and reserve duty are so intertwined that the U.S. Navy no longer distinguishes whether a member is either a regular or reserve officer nor does it use their traditional term USNR. Rather, every officer is simply assigned to the USN.

So what does this mean to the U.S. fire service? Our discussion centered on the possibility that the fire service would stop making a distinction between career and part-time or volunteer firefighters. 

What if instead the fire service started using the term "reserves" for any non-career firefighter similar to how the military uses its reserves and how the fire service throughout the United Kingdom uses the term "retained firefighters" for those not serving full time?

The mission of the U.S. fire service is the same whether career or reserve. While majority of our country's population remain covered by career firefighters, the majority of the country's area and natural resources are covered by reserve firefighters. 

The benefits
One immediate benefit to a name change might be to remove the rivalry associated with one group or the other and better unify the over 1.2 million firefighters serving in the United States. 

In January, The Washington Post published an example of this rivalry in its story about Prince George's County, Md., perhaps the largest combination department. The story centered on the increased number of career firefighters and the infringement felt by the volunteers. 

This is not a new story; in fact it is a continuing story in Prince George's that I recall as far back the 1990s. 

With the growing respect for our military reserves and their increased importance in the daily defense of our country, could a similar scenario benefit the fire service? How could operations improve if there were a regular integration of both groups available for daily operations, as well as major incidents or national emergencies? 

What if some reserve groups in addition to their standard fire and EMS certification also trained in special operations such as the military's reservists and be available to immediately supplement or augment career units anywhere when needed? How might this concept better prepare and provide valuable experience to our next generation of firefighters? 

It may be time to discuss how the reserve concept can be applied to the fire service for the benefit and subsequent respect of all.

About the author

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers — USA Branch. Chief Rielage can be reached at

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Marc Blaine Marc Blaine Monday, April 14, 2014 9:54:00 AM I couldn't disagree with you more. At a time when The Union has declared that it's members cannot volunteer on their off time, when volunteer members of combination departments are treated as second-class members, and the career fire service refers to us in terms like 'unprofessional" "wannabees" or worse, we need to stand up and proudly declare who we are and why we do it. Part of this problem is our own doing. Many of the taxpayers in the towns we serve don't even know that we are a volunteer organization. They don't realize that we have a training requirement just to become a probie, and that the training never stops. They may not even know how much we save them in tax dollars. We need to improve on that. Where I come from in the fire service 'reserve', means( like an old engine), something has been put out to pasture and is a tool or last resort. That isn't me and I sure as hell hope that isn't US.
Warren Jorgenson Warren Jorgenson Monday, April 14, 2014 12:14:48 PM I agree with you Mr Blaine 110% !!
Warren Jorgenson Warren Jorgenson Monday, April 14, 2014 12:27:51 PM If you want to fix the problem just stop using the words Volunteer and Career. Some firefighters are at the station and some are not. You will also need to change some behavior and attitudes of certain people.
Ryan Burnham Ryan Burnham Monday, April 14, 2014 1:00:12 PM I have been a Volunteer Firefighter in the past and am currently a National Guardsman, I have been in a combination deptartment as well as trained and operated along side active duty soldiers. I can tell you this the Fire Service does not have a problem, the major flaw in your logic is the assumption the military is onbig happy family. As a whole I have been disrepect more as reserve soldier then as a volunteer fireman, and on top of that not even the 4 branches are respected umong active duty or reserve. So maybe the name change that should be getting considered is volunteer military and not reserve firefighter.
Jeff Collins Jeff Collins Monday, April 14, 2014 2:30:18 PM I am Firefighter and a Paramedic. Oh, wait...I am a Volunteer Firefighter and Paramedic. I have a stack of IFSTA / MU Columbia Training Certificates that would rival any Career Firefighter. Why am I not a Career Firefighter? There is only one paid department and is is a combination department within 80 miles of where I live. If it were not for Volunteers many in rural areas would have not fire coverage at all. Just because I do not get paid does not mean I am not a professional.
Dave Helmer Sr Dave Helmer Sr Monday, April 14, 2014 9:59:17 PM Agreed with Marc Blaine... Refer to me as a 'Reserve' Firefighter, and you have immediately demoted and insulted me. In the Fire Service, 'Reserve' almost universally means an older engine or truck, which HAS BEEN REPLACED by a newer, up-to-date piece, but 'could be used as a back-up, but only if really necessary'. The only resolution I could envision, is if somehow, everyone involved could smply refer to ALL Firefighters, as just that - Firefighters.
John Drady John Drady Tuesday, April 15, 2014 9:32:45 AM PERFECTLY said Marc. Thank you.
Mike Boyle Mike Boyle Wednesday, April 16, 2014 6:32:46 AM Here's an idea...Lets get rid of the terms 'career' and 'volunteer' and simply refer to the men and women performing this challenging job as 'Firefighters'. That's what we are and that's what we do! I'm proud to serve as a volunteer and I go through the same training, and are held to the same standards as a 'career' firefighter so why am I so disrespected by my full time brothers/sisters as soon as I mention that I serve in a volunteer department. If the problem is to remedied, then lets stop using labels and refer to ourselves first and foremost as FIREFIGHTERS.
Mike Teeling Mike Teeling Thursday, April 17, 2014 3:58:23 AM I agree with you Mike Boyle we are all firefighter ,no matter carrier or volunteer. are training is the same, our standards are the same ,our job and goals are as well the same ,are standard operating procedures ,ours are the hat ,white hat,we all have a job to do people are counting on us to have the knowledge most couldn't tell you the difference niether are lesser firefighters.the reality to all this is the level of integrity,knowledge,dignity,respect,for our jobs as well as each other
Tom Perko Tom Perko Thursday, April 17, 2014 5:37:26 PM Why not just say "firefighter". I'm with the commenting crowd on this one. Also, I have friends who have served in the reserves & National Guard. They sacrifice a lot to perform those jobs, & they are still seen as “weekend warriors” by their regular military counterparts. Let’s just stay with firefighter. "If you're paid or not, the fire burns as hot!"
David Everly David Everly Thursday, April 17, 2014 6:10:32 PM I am a volunteer Firefighter...and all i can say is there is no solution to this concern. It will always be around as it has always been around. I can say most paid firefighters i know started as a volunteer firefighter. I agree the public does complain that we do not respond fast enough but even the public don't understand we are a volunteer organization and we have to maintain a job outside the department to support our families. I personally just don't see how changing a name will eliminate any of the argument between paid firefighters and volunteer firefighters.
Paul Boss Paul Boss Thursday, April 17, 2014 6:17:34 PM Kind of funny how the volunteer firefighters don't have a problem with the career guys but the career guys always down grade the volunteers must be envious of us volunteers or they got some short comings.
Mike Coleman Mike Coleman Thursday, April 17, 2014 6:24:51 PM I see it as we are ALL FIREFIGHTERS wether we get paid or not
Daniel Sroka Daniel Sroka Thursday, April 17, 2014 6:39:52 PM "Reserve" would not be universally accurate in the fire service. For example, we are a 100% volunteer station. If the fire is in our district we are first to respond and we are in command, including command over assisting stations where all firefighters are paid. In other stations, where there are both paid and volunteer firefighters, the term "reserve" is also not going to be generally accurate. They all get on the trucks and go. Sometimes the volunteer will outrank the paid, and sometimes vice versa. As to training up in special skills (technical rescue, high angle rescue, EMT), we have volunteers who have done all of that, so, again, "reserve" would not be a correct term.
Roger Sandoval Roger Sandoval Thursday, April 17, 2014 7:53:36 PM I believe the best way to solve this issue is to get rid of the "career & volunteer " names and just call ourselves what we are "FireFighters" ,, after all are we all not trained to do just that , not to mention all the other things !!
Chuck Wetherton Chuck Wetherton Thursday, April 17, 2014 8:06:04 PM OK! I usually don't say much but when it involves the term used by the higher up it just burns my butt when we want to rename Volunteers I hate to tell you bone head career firefighters that without volunteers you would have never been. That"s right not been because most full time departments annexed a lot of the volunteer departments and shut them out to be all career and if the 80% of the fire service today didn't volunteer all they would call you Idiots is slab coolers. Reserves? RESERVE this not only no but hell no!!!!! I am A volunteer Chief and have been for over 9 years I have been a firefighter for well over 30 years career and volunteer and I take pride in all my "VOLUNTEERS" they are the most giving people I have had the great fortune to be acquainted with. Also when you break it down aren't we all trying to do the same job? SAVE LIVES? how about you delete the word career? because were all FIREFIGHTERS!! or are we not?
Joyce Wetherton Joyce Wetherton Thursday, April 17, 2014 8:24:53 PM Very well said.
Barbara Medina Gomez Barbara Medina Gomez Thursday, April 17, 2014 11:38:32 PM Well I was a volunteer firefighter . Since lady week . When our station hired a paid chief and got rid of the volunteers , we where told we where not certified enough as a career firefighter . So who all think that volunteers are not anything , sorry but we do this for the love of being volunteered not just because we get paid to be there .
Dave U'Ren Dave U'Ren Friday, April 18, 2014 4:45:29 AM Why does there need to be a distinction of roles? We are all doing the same job with the same training and dedication. We're all just "Firefighters". Leave it at that.
John Verrecchia John Verrecchia Friday, April 18, 2014 6:00:14 AM I totally agree with Dave Helmer, Sr's comments below. Calling volunteer firefighters "reserve" firefighters is an insult. In the 80% of America where there are only volunteer departments to protect the public, we are certainly not reserves. We are the front line of protection of life and property. The real difference here is that it is not our primary job. It is something we do because we have the heart to do it and the passion for what we do. I saw a sign in front of a volunteer department here in North Carolina that says it best, "Volunteers do not necessarily have the time, they just have the heart."
Stelios Dasos Stelios Dasos Friday, April 18, 2014 12:08:41 PM The same problem every where!! Hello from Greece!!
Bob Eldridge Bob Eldridge Friday, April 18, 2014 12:24:21 PM As a volunteer Fire Chief I had many military members including a Navy Lt Commander from Charleston Navy yard Mine Sweepers in my department. He was one of the best., Most of the 23 years I was in the Air Force I Joined up with the local Volunteers. My wife accused me of looking for the Fire Station then finding a home to live in. The local departments were glad to have us. We had disapline and training they needed. I was Assistant Chief of two Radar sights while serving in the AF. We had one paid firefighter and the rest were volunteers.,
Rick Scace Rick Scace Friday, April 18, 2014 12:29:32 PM We do the same job some get paid some dont what the fuck is all of this I thought we were all BROTHERS I am a volunteer and proud of it
Rob Young Rob Young Friday, April 18, 2014 12:47:09 PM In small town, I mean small town, America there is no "reserve" because there are no paid firefighters. We are the Firefighters, we are the Fire Department. We are the ones who leave our families and jobs and churches and holiday gatherings to Volunteer our time to serve our neighbors, friends and communities. We have to be trained just like the "Career" firefighters and we respond to the same calls as our paid brothers and sisters in larger towns and cities, the difference is, no one has to pay us to show up to work. We do it out of obligation to our families, friends and neighbors; to our communities. We Volunteer because that is how it is done in Small town America and we are proud to be Volunteers!
Bob Rowan Bob Rowan Friday, April 18, 2014 1:46:56 PM Never work in areas of NY and others where their are no paid firefighters. Everyone is volunteer. When I moved to Florida, we created a combination department with both paid and volunteer. We are good with current titles.
Bob Rowan Bob Rowan Friday, April 18, 2014 1:50:56 PM Additionally what do you call Long Island, NY firefighters that are paid FDNY full-time and volunteer in their home towns another 40 hours a week. Just call everyone a Firefighter.
Mark Maxwell Mark Maxwell Friday, April 18, 2014 3:51:30 PM Really Dude? You want to be respected and thought of in a higher position than career/paid/professional firefighters yet you make comments like Bone head, Idiots, Slab coolers..... really... Not Cool, Not Well Said..... I have not read any demeaning remarks from others towards volunteer firefighters
Chuck Feldmann Chuck Feldmann Friday, April 18, 2014 9:42:37 PM I have been proud to serve as a Volunteer Firefighter for over 35 years. I am willing to accept the term "Unpaid Professional" rather than "Reserve". I do this to serve my community and neighbors, not to supplement or fill in for paid firefighters.
Marc Stevenson Marc Stevenson Saturday, April 19, 2014 2:04:16 PM I served 10 years in the fire service. I was very well trained. I trained and taught at my state academy, had a stack of certifications. I was a professional. I just wasn't paid. And like a few noted below, I was not a reservist. Let's go back and make the military comparison again. If we are not at war, then the reservists train one weekend a month, 2 weeks in the summer. I DO NOT MEAN any disrespect to military reservists and if the training requirement has changed my apologies. The US Uniformed Services members have my highest respect. But military reservists are also paid for their time. I volunteered my time. Not just because of the excitement of the fire service but because it was something I wanted to do. And as a few have noted, we had a reserve engine, reserve brush truck, and reserve aerial. I would have never wanted to been called a reserve. I was called a fire fighter. If someone asked where, I told them. They often knew that most of the towns in my area were staffed by volunteers. Most people didn't ask if I was a volunteer or career.
Micky Finn Micky Finn Tuesday, April 22, 2014 7:54:01 AM I am a Career Fire Chief, and have been a Volunteer Fire Chief as well. Reserve is someone called up for active duty, so how is a Volunteer in reserve? They are very much active in some Fd's. Also, stop saying First Responders! The use of IC also took away from Fire Chief. This is why ICS loses authority because the "IC" is in charge which means nothing, who is the IC? Fire Chief says who it is. Stop taking away from the Fire Department!

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