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Editor's Note
by Rick Markley, editor-in-chief

Career vs. volunteer battle has no place in future fire department

Whether or not career and volunteer find themselves increasingly on the same department, it is time for old animosities to die

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

Do you remember the Paul Combs' cartoon panel with two devils in the bowels of hell with one holding a snowball? The devil with the snowball replies to the other's inquiry with "firefighter unity."

That panel came to mind as I looked through the comments to the story of how Jeannette, Pa.'s council is considering dropping its paid firefighters from the combination department in favor of an all-volunteer force. The city has struggled for years to fund its fire department, going through a series of furloughs, callbacks and layoffs.

The jury is still out on what Jeannette will do. Yet, anytime a department shifts from paid to volunteer or from volunteer to paid, there likely will be hard feelings. At the risk of oversimplifying, both can feel that their jobs or vocations are threatened by the others' presence.

Yes it is anecdotal, but when you read news about fire departments around the country, a pattern emerges — despite the slow economic recovery, cuts to the fire service persist. The days when fire departments are flush with cash may be a very long way off.

It won't surprise me at all if we see more and more hybrid fire departments forming. By hybrid I mean a combination of career, paid-on-call and volunteer.

I can see fire departments in suburban or smaller urban areas opting for a reduced paid staff supplemented by trained, paid-on-call firefighters. I can also see a role for unpaid or moderately paid volunteers who provide duties other than structural firefighting.

Make no mistake, I firmly believe municipalities should fully fund the level of fire and EMS protection each needs. But the reality on the street is that that is not happening in many areas.

If this hybrid becomes the only way some departments can maintain adequate staffing, the onus will fall on us to learn to play nice together. There will be no place for career vs volunteer turf battles.

One way to ease tensions may be to find a mechanism to include non-career firefighters in the union. Perhaps a "reduced dues for reduced benefits" scheme would work — but there are much smarter people out there than me who can figure that out.

Yes, it is not fair that police don't face the same cuts or reliance on volunteer staff — again that's the reality we have to deal with. Whether or not we see more hybrid fire departments popping up matters not. It is time for us to stop letting old rivalries compromise our safety and unity.

It's time for a good, old-fashioned snowball fight in hell.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Donald Thomas Hebb Donald Thomas Hebb Monday, March 17, 2014 1:41:42 PM I think that anyone belives that they will get the same service from volunteer over career are wrong . Not saying they can't do the same job but the time it takes to get the truck on the road will take longer do to the fact that it takes longer for the volunteers to get to the station do to travel time weather an so on . An the time it will take to get a full crew to get on the truck . I know it cost a shitload of money to staff a station the cost out ways the cost of one life .
Monday, March 17, 2014 2:28:27 PM The comment about response time is spot on. However, as a 34 yr volunteer, our job is to respond the best way we can. When the response time isn't fast enough, the public can beat on the door of the Fire Chief and the Governing Board because the apparatus doors are opening because we are heading to another call !!
Peter Pamepinto Peter Pamepinto Monday, March 17, 2014 3:42:14 PM I can see that the comments from Donald Karl and Nancy are from people that have a more rural VFD. Pl ease come to PG. co. MD. and ride with us. Challenged after 2 mins. If no answer replaced on the call by 3 Min. Home response is not an option. Please check us out.
Budd Dunson Budd Dunson Monday, March 17, 2014 4:29:39 PM actually you pointed out 99% of the problem when you said union.
Peter Pamepinto Peter Pamepinto Monday, March 17, 2014 4:36:36 PM Donald, You must be talking about home response.
Monday, March 17, 2014 10:49:48 PM Your tag line says "works", giving a possible indication that you get paid. Not every community, rural or not, can have as many volunteers as Prince George's County. I would have to opine that your department is more exception than rule, as I am a 20 year fire service veteran of both paid and volunteer departments. None of the volunteers in my area "pull duty" at the station…they are too busy working at their jobs, and the majority of the departments are having to add paid staff, at least during normal working hours, to guarantee coverage. At the end of the day, if you can't get a truck on scene to mitigate someone's problem, then you have another, larger problem on your hands.
Mark St Clair Mark St Clair Tuesday, March 18, 2014 9:01:04 AM And you pointed out how clueless you are with this post.
Mark St Clair Mark St Clair Tuesday, March 18, 2014 9:31:13 AM To the editor, your "include non-career firefighters in the union" idea is laughable at best and in my opinion shows a significant lack of understanding of what a labor union is. The career vs volunteer issues are not exclusive to combination departments. They often involve career departments vs volunteer departments. The volunteers in those departments certainly wouldn't be in my bargaining unit and wouldn't be eligible for membership in my Local. If anything, they'd have to form their own Local. Considering that most volunteer departments are "independent contractors" rather than municipally run agencies, the members of the Local would also be the governing body for the department. So, unless everybody has split personalities, how do you negotiate issues with yourself? Typically, tensions between career and volunteer are the product of disparity. Volunteers feel marginalized because they aren't viewed as being the same as "professional firefighters" (as in paid to be a firefighter). Career firefighters feel marginalized because volunteers are often held to a different standard or level of expectation (in general or within the same organization), but expect to be viewed as the same as the career firefighter. Obviously, these are broad generalizations and not specifically reflective of individuals. There will probably never be a way to eliminate these feelings completely, but one of the best approaches in my opinion is to hold everybody to the same (minimum) standard, particularly within the same organization. Unfortunately, in my experiences, the volunteer side (in general) is very resistive to this idea and in some cases, resistive to being held to any sort of standard.
Budd Dunson Budd Dunson Tuesday, March 18, 2014 11:01:22 AM Mark St Clair No I think your remark proved that 1- You are a selfish individual that is not willing to give to the community 2- That you are gullible you are a member of a union I assume this after all the corruption that we all have seen with unions 3-closed minded because you refuse to see any other point of view. Now count all the bad policies implemented by union backed politicians.
Mark St Clair Mark St Clair Tuesday, March 18, 2014 5:40:18 PM Budd Dunson, well you're certainly entitled to your opinion, even if it isn't rooted in reality or true. Regardless, I stand by my comment. 1) I'm far from "selfish" and do "give to the community". 2) I'm also far from being gullible. Yes, I am a union member. In fact, I'm an Executive Officer of my Local. You're very naive if you think all unions are corrupt or have cornered the market on corruption. I'd be willing to bet that there's far more corruption among politicians and corporations than there is in unions. 3) Just because I don't agree with you doesn't mean that I'm closed minded. I'm actually not closed minded at all. I'm more than willing to listen to other points of view, but you better have a strong argument as to why your view is right and mine is wrong and you better have your facts straight if you want to convince me. I can tell from your initial post that you clearly don't have your facts straight if you think unions are "99% of the problem", but I'm more than willing to hear why you believe that to be the truth. However, when you're done, I hope you'll be open minded enough to listen to why you're wrong. By what measure are you determining that a policy is "bad"? Feel free to count all the bad policies implemented by politicians backed by corporations and the wealthy.
Jon Marr Jon Marr Monday, September 29, 2014 12:29:40 AM You are absolutely correct. Furthermore, Professional Firefighter union organizations (IAFF) actually list volunteer fire departments as a threat to the firefighter union. They describe how volunteer firefighters take jobs away from union members or prospective members. The goal of a union is to grow the union. Volunteers inhibit that growth but...if they paid dues... perhaps Rick Markley raises and interesting idea. It's not a bad pipe dream. We have the same mission as volunteer fire departments, I believe there should be a mechanism that brings everything a little closer and more inclusive.
Mark St Clair Mark St Clair Monday, September 29, 2014 7:02:46 PM Jon Marr Actually, the goal of a labor union is to give voice in the workplace to the people it represents for things like fair wages, safe working conditions and disciplinary matters. Growing the union is a secondary goal and the best way to do that is to organize new bargaining units rather than focusing on increasing membership in established ones. The idea of including volunteer firefighters in a labor union is absolutely asinine and shows a level of ignorance of what a labor union is and what its purpose is.
Jon Marr Jon Marr Wednesday, October 01, 2014 5:12:14 AM Mark St Clair ,Clearly you are very passionate about this subject and that's great. As firefighters we should be passionate about our jobs. We all have ideas about how things should be and what the fire service could look like in the future. My idea of having a more inclusive and collaborative fire service over all is not a bad idea. It's a positive vision for the future of what "could" be. Some ideas are good some are bad and that judgement is all based on individual perspective. You appear to have a level a negativity about you that makes you believe that calling people ignorant or verbally vilifying someones idea as being asinine is acceptable behavior given the distance provided by the internet. I've been a union member I know the game. You claim to be a Union Local Executive Officer. The first lesson of leadership is to always be positive, even when faced with the most dire situation. If your Local is great then you shouldn't have to tear other people and their ideas down. You should be able to talk about all the wonderful things your union is doing and let that speak for itself. If it's great than it will over-power any and every good or bad idea anyone could possibly think of. No need to be so angry. The fire service is a small community. Be Safe, Be Respectful, and Be Nice. Kind Regards
Mark St Clair Mark St Clair Wednesday, October 01, 2014 6:25:42 AM Jon Marr I can fully support the idea of a more inclusive and collaborative fire service however, the inclusion of volunteers as members of a labor union is not the appropriate vehicle for that effort. For the record, I would have told you to your face that the idea is asinine and even if you have in fact been a union member, clearly you have a level of ignorance regarding their purpose to suggest firefighter unions should accept volunteers into their membership to make them feel more included. I agree that individual perspective does influence whether an idea is viewed as good or bad however, some ideas are in fact good because they are good and vice versa regardless of ones individual perspective. Talking up my union and Local does nothing to address the idea you proposed. So, going that route doesn't make much sense. That pretty much leaves addressing the idea head on, which I did. You see that as not being "positive", but oftentimes our perspective on a matter is positional. You see my comments as being negative, likely because of being on the receiving end of them and the expected feelings it may evoke. However, others will likely see them as defending our union and positive. I believe that the "lesson" you refer to is actually a "rule" and it's not to always be positive, it's to remain calm and in control.

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