Volunteer fire departments: An endangered species?

A combination of manmade forces are undermining volunteer fire departments' ability to survive

It would be easy to take an alarmist view of the recent rash of news stories about things going terribly wrong at volunteer fire departments. And while reports of volunteer firefighting's death are greatly exaggerated, these stories represent a larger pattern that is disconcerting.

Whether it is town leaders in Shelby, Iowa changing the locks on the fire station and dismissing the entire volunteer staff or the Tennessee volunteer fire department that faced shutting down after its treasurer stole $5,000, many fire departments are operating dangerously close to the edge of extinction.

It reminds me of families who live paycheck to paycheck on such a tight margin that even the slightest unexpected expense can send them into catastrophe.

In many cases, it is a cash-flow problem; there's just not enough flowing in to maintain a fire department. But I'd guess that in most cases there are multiple forces that threaten volunteer fire departments' viability.

You can see how volunteer services are taken for granted: "Why should we pay for something that's always been free?" Politics and personality conflicts are often at play.

Add to this mix, theft by members, arson by members, apathy by members and an inability to attract new members and you have a recipe for extinction of volunteer firefighting.

It's a slow, creeping, cancer-like problem that could harm both the overall fire service and the communities they protect.

A contributor to this is the requirement that volunteer firefighters be professional fundraisers. One of the infuriating aspects of the Iowa story isn't that the department is required to account for the money it raises, it's that the department has to raise money at all.

It's generally easy to identify problems while much harder to find the solutions. This is no exception.

Laws requiring tax-collecting entities provide a minimum level of fire protection is one option that would help all forms of fire departments.

Volunteer fire departments still make up a large chunk of the overall firefighting population, but their numbers are dwindling. There's a great number of reasons to protect their ranks.

They add to the strength of a community, they often serve as feeder systems for career fire departments and they are a wonderful part of our firefighting tradition.

In short, they are worth keeping alive in some form. How we do that, however, needs to be part of the national and local conversation — or they may become our dodo bird. 

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