Fire departments in crisis: Time to make some changes
Exploring combination, professional fire departments necessary to achieve safe, efficient firefighter staffing levels
We’ve all seen headlines like these – “Volunteerism on decline,” “Aldermen consider dissolving fire department,” “Police officers trained to be firefighters” “Union demands more pay,” “The forgotten firefighters.”
There is indeed a crisis in our service which is past needing simple attention; not pro-volunteer or pro-union, but pro-professional change.
Before you gather the pitchforks and throw the rotten tomatoes, I’ve worked on both sides of that proverbial wall and for 37 years, have advocated for what’s right in the service we are sworn to serve.
100 years of tradition
Recognizing that any projection of our future has to include an evaluation of our past and present, let’s look at some of our history and our current state of affairs. As much as folks may lament the loss of the past, the days of bucket brigades and horse-drawn steamers are left for fairs and competitions. Everything we do has changed.
When I joined the fire service as a volunteer in 1981 in a combination county department (Prince George’s County, Maryland), we – both paid and volunteer – wore unlined leather helmets, three-quarter pull-up boots and rode the back-step of firetrucks, sometimes literally holding on for dear life with one hand while wrapping the coat around with the other. We still used the community house siren and some of us wore voice pagers.
Volunteer home response was still heavy in our bedroom community, about 15 miles east of Washington, D.C., halfway to Annapolis. Paid firefighters only worked Monday thru Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., with one guy (they were all guys at that point) staying until 5 p.m.
Those operational and response particulars are but a memory and collection of stories told around the kitchen table, yet we continue holding on to the 100 years of tradition with respect to “fixing” the volunteer fire service staffing levels with recruitment and retention. This is where we’ve stuck our heads in the sand folks – we’re drowning, and for whatever reason, many among us refuse to admit it.
Speaking the truth about the fire service
I recently worked with the major fire service organizations in the state of New York, ostensibly to have a discussion about the formation of combination departments. At the completion of our 4-hour strategic planning session, there was a full wall of “goods” and “bads,” and “improves” along with “quick fixes.” The 36 representatives voted on the highest priorities, which they will hopefully use as a blueprint for a different future. While the highest vote count topic was telling, “Tell the truth about the fire service,” the remaining votes continued to paint a picture about recruitment and retention. New York is not alone, yet this response is a symptom of the decay that has led to our broken structure.
Our bifurcated system of fire protection in the United States is in need of repair, and a bandage isn’t going to do it – more like a transplant. It’s not just about hiring or forming combination departments. There’s also a strong notion that our response-at-all-costs mentality contributes to a skewed sense of personal responsibility within our citizenry. It’s time to talk about a change in the paradigm, increasing personal responsibility and accountability, while ensuring fire departments are fully ready to respond when really needed.
Any way you look at it, the challenges the fire service faces aren’t just about recruitment and retention; but providing service, maintaining the public’s trust and doing what’s right, regardless of that being contrary to 100 years of tradition. Do you remember the last time your cable/satellite repair-person didn’t show up when they said they would? That feeling of indignation and fleeting desperation because you couldn’t watch the football game or soap opera? Well, I want you to remember that feeling – the one your community feels when your fire department doesn’t show up.
It’s past time for us to get our collective heads out of the sand, be honest and admit our shortcomings while celebrating our successes, and be prepared to make the truly difficult decisions of systemic change that leaders must make. Hiring, combining, recruiting, improving, change – regardless of how much it hurts to hear this … this is no longer your grandfather’s fire department.
You want change? Then be a leader – take people where they need to be, which may not be where they want to be.