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Is it harmful in the long run for volunteer fire departments to conduct fundraisers for buying equipment?

Editor's Note: This is the first edition of a new feature called 1 Question. We'll ask one thought-provoking question to several experts and then invite you to join the conversation. We encourage you to add your insights, opinions or questions in the comment section, and send our editor an email if you have a question you'd like to see asked in an upcoming 1 Question.

Volunteer fire departments are coming up with some innovative ways to raise money. Fundraising can range from the tried-and-true pancake breakfast to the eyebrow-raising sponsorship decals on apparatus.

It is hard to argue with the logic of having a fundraiser if it means securing a thermal imager or new turnout gear. But does this fundraising effort let municipal governments off the hook for fully funding their fire departments?

To find out, we put this question to two experts in volunteer fire fighting and one expert in public opinion and public discourse. Here's what they had to say.

Meet the Experts

Thomas Roach is a professor of communication, author and communication consultant whose dissertation on public debate was named the best in the nation.

Phil Stittleburg is fire chief in LaFarge, Wis., and chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.



Fred Windisch is fire chief in Ponderosa, Texas, and he serves on the board of directors of the Volunteer Chief Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Fred Windisch: "'Harmful' is an unusual word used in this context. I believe that local government certainly has a responsibility to assist in funding basic human services, and without a doubt fire/EMS is just that.

"True partnerships can occur if planned and managed correctly and be very successful getting the best value for the services performed.

"There are many examples of local government funding the major assets and the agency 'funding' operational costs. Volunteer systems are very efficient when utilizing overall cost. But the fact remains that butterflies are free, volunteers are not.

"There has to be a system in place to fund benefits and incentives for volunteers — no matter what line of work. If a community does not recognize that, or have never been told that, then the community simply doesn’t understand and we end up with local government and the volunteer agency being ineffective partners.

"This particular subject matter is huge and totally dependent on the specific community. A population of 5,000 has certain needs (and agency capabilities) compared to a 50,000 population that has certain needs (and agency capabilities). The 'one size fits all' approach does not work.

"There has to be buy-in from the stakeholders: community, local government and the agency. If one of those three legs of the chair is missing, a collapse is predictable and preventable."

Phil Stittleburg: "The answer is clearly yes. Let me start with a caveat. The caveat is that there are some volunteer fire departments that actually like doing fundraising, so they are in a class by themselves.

"For the vast majority, looking to the fire department to do its own fundraising is in the long run detrimental.

"The time demands for volunteers are so severe, both fire-related and otherwise. All studies are showing that more Americans are spending more time with their jobs than they ever did before.

"There are more two-earner homes, which means that the housekeeping duties have to be shared. There's just less discretionary time to do anything else, including being a volunteer.

"When you couple that with the expanding role that the fire service is seeing — the requirement to learn more, do more, train more — it means that the time the volunteers have available to dedicate to the fire service is being reduced at the exact same time that the fire service is requiring more time.

"You start looking for what you can unload. One of these things is the fundraising.

"We send an inaccurate message when we do our recruiting. People think they are going to be doing emergency response — that's what brings them in the door. Then we want them to do a whole bunch of other things like public education, investigations, inspections, and fundraising.

"I always love to say to a group, 'Everybody in this room who joined the fire service because I get a hell of a charge out of selling raffle tickets, raise your hand.' It doesn't make sense.

"We are taking this limited and shrinking resource that is time, and we are spending on something that somebody else can and should be doing. And that's local government.

"It is local government's responsibility to provide the financial resources for the fire department to be able to operate, for the fire department to dedicate their time to doing stuff that is more important.

"We could never, ever imagine a situation where the police department had to run a bake sale to buy a squad car. But we take it in stride; in fact, it is an expectation that the fire department is going to raise some of the money for its new truck.

"I feel real strongly that when we're looking to volunteer departments to raise the money to operate, we are doing a disservice to the volunteers."

Thomas Roach: "It is problematic whenever municipal entities like police and fire departments do fundraising. It compromises their professionalism.

"Then there is the issue of, if they can raise their own funds, why should the city pay for their budget? With the recession and the anti-tax revolution going on right now, it is a bad climate in which to act independent.

"Fire departments are better off campaigning for the public good on issues like installing sprinklers and making people aware of fire hazards. Then the community will appreciate their services more, and they will be less likely to get their budgets cut."

What do you think? Is it harmful in the long run for volunteer fire departments to conduct fundraisers for buying equipment? Leave your answer in the comments.

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