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

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.

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