Trending Topics

Internal conflict: Paid on call vs volunteer

The fight over who gets paid and who doesn’t is not one the volunteer fire service can afford to have

If there has been one topic that threads through most of my pieces on volunteer firefighting it is money — how to get it and how to spend it. The most controversial money discussions have been about paid vs volunteer departments.

Although we are used to paid and volunteer departments differing, a new scary trend has occurred causing a split between ‘pure’ volunteer departments and those paid on call.

It was about a decade ago that volunteer departments really started embracing the idea of having their members paid on call. At first it was met by skepticism and a fight from the ‘dinosaurs’ saying that ‘real’ volunteers wouldn’t accept pay.

Some saw it as eroding the volunteer nature. Length of service award plans were bad enough, but being paid by call was ‘wrong.’

As time went by, and volunteerism started falling, paying by call became less of an option and more of a necessity. The pay also went from a couple of bucks to pay for gas to more than $20 per call in some areas.

Third-class departments
Now the new unfortunate trend is that there is a split occurring in some areas between volunteer departments and those paid on call. We are hearing that paid-on-call departments are ‘better’ than volunteer departments and that some departments will only call mutual aid from other paid-on-call departments.

Have we now created a third class of departments? Is it now volunteer vs paid on call vs career?

The National Fire Department Census has categories for mostly volunteer or mostly career. Are paid-on-call departments mostly career or mostly volunteer? Have we lost our volunteer nature because of the reimbursement per call? Did we forget that the pay per call was supposed to be a reimbursement for our time and expenses, not a job?

Maybe it is time for all of us to do a gut check and ask why we are firefighters. Some of us get paid, some of us don’t. Our neighbors need our help no matter where our paycheck comes from.

Maintaining brotherhood
We can be professionals and provide a high level of service no matter what our pay is (or isn’t). It is a brotherhood of firefighters, not a brotherhood of volunteers, paid on call, career, etc… I hope that each of us is a firefighter because it is a calling or to help others, not just for a paycheck.

The truth is that a department may be better than another in a specialty or one specific area. Some departments may have better equipment then others. Some departments may have better response times or other measures.

The bottom line is that we are each good at something and there is something that we should be proud of. Just because you or your department has a strength does not make you better than someone else.

Rather than splitting us apart, reach out to your fellow firefighter or neighboring department and help them gain the strength you have. We don’t need more division, we need more support and it is up to each of us to provide that support to our brethren.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’