If someone was to pick a conflict today, one that has evaded solution continually, it would be volunteers versus full-time firefighters. The idea that these two organizational concepts cannot live side by side has resulted in the rupture of personal and political friendships.
Why the bloodbath? This issue of protecting the interest of full-time paid firefighters, which is adequately and appropriately taken care of by the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the existence of volunteer firefighters in America is not contradictory. Granted, there are many who keep this pot boiling by pitting one against the other. But in the final analysis, the only people who really get punished by this battle are the residents. Even when disputes are resolved in some fashion, the battle scars remain on both sides. The individuals who have chosen to support one position over the other often never give up on the issue.
The concept of the volunteer and the necessity for the paid firefighters are mutually supportive in practice. Stand far enough back to look at the true nature of volunteerism, and it is clear that they can coexist.
How do I know that? Well, there were a lot less paid and full-time firefighters when I began my career in the 1960s, and there were multiple communities that employed volunteer firefighters. Now there are more paid firefighters than ever before, and there are still some communities that rely on a volunteer fire force as their only means of protection.
To the best of my knowledge, Benjamin Franklin fathered the American fire service to protect his local community. The only resource he had readily available to him was his friends and neighbors who banded together to form a volunteer fire company. I have read as much about Franklin's early entrepreneurial spirit as anybody in our profession. And I'm convinced that if Franklin were alive today, he would still be stumping for fire protection — whether it be volunteer, paid or whatever. He was only 21 years old when he conceived this brilliant idea of copying what had been done in other parts of the world and even parts of America. I can't help but feel that if he were here today to witness some of the diatribe that goes on between the two sides of this argument, it would bring tears to his eyes.
Unless someone can provide me with evidence to the contrary, full-time paid fire departments' beginning was almost entirely based on the size and shape of the city. Volunteers flourished in Manhattan at one time. Metropolitan communities soon found that they needed somebody on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to respond to the call of fire. It wasn't that the volunteers were useless. It wasn't that they were unavailable. The early state fire service came into existence because of fierce competition between volunteers who set about brawling instead of battling fires. The paid fire service was created because a better defined structured and reliable source of protection was needed for communities that were capitalized and industrialized.
But volunteers did not go away with the creation of the Cincinnati, New York City, Chicago and all those other metropolitan fire departments. You can look at shoulder patches at firefighting conventions today and see hundreds if not thousands of fire departments that trace their lineage back to the 1700s and 1800s. Often, the volunteer fire service has been a part of the fabric and culture of a community for so long that it is part of that community's identity.
There are some communities that are so small that they have no fire protection at all. There are some communities that are relatively small but have established a volunteer fire department. There are some communities that have grown, and the demand placed on volunteers to carry out various levels of service is resulting in fewer volunteers joining. There are some communities where the demand for services is so intense that it is virtually impossible to get enough volunteers to meet those service levels. There are some communities that are so built-out with population densities, and commercial and industrial concentration that it is virtually impossible to provide fire protection unless it is on a full-time basis.
Which one describes your community? Is yours a major metropolitan, urban center with a population density of 2,562 per square mile or is it a farming community stuck out in the middle of nowhere in which the closest gas station is 20 miles away? That is America. That is our country. Those providing fire protection across that landscape don't have to be at each other's throat.
There are detractors doing their level best to keep this controversy alive. The people who keep the controversy churning are those who get angry toward the fire service in a political context and play one party against another. In the case of a fire department that is suffering from labor-relations problems, it is common for some to say, or at least imply, that if the other side doesn't capitulate and keep the cost low enough “we'll go back to volunteers.” The hope is that they will give up some of their drive to achieve a compromise. That simply doesn't make any sense.
I don't know a more appropriate way to describe it other than to say that it is an absolutely idiotic approach. Any suggestion that one can replace a full-time fire department by going back to volunteers is almost in direct conflict with the community's expectations. John Q. Citizen and his wife probably are not going and change their lifestyles to suddenly volunteer to replace those who have been terminated.
On the other hand, whenever volunteers get politically rowdy it is common for some politician to say, “I'll fix those guys. I am going to replace them with paid firemen.” This is based on the idea that paid firefighters are going to cost the same as volunteers. That is a totally erroneous assumption. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the money spent on a couple of dozen volunteers doesn't even begin to equal the salary of one individual much less the 3.3 employees per shift it takes to staff the fire station.
And, there is the conflict being generated between the different types of individuals who fall into both of these camps. There are firefighters who want to remain volunteers in the community they live. They are sometimes in conflict with their leaders. There are volunteers who really want to be full-time paid firefighters somewhere and would do almost anything to get hired.
There also is the type of volunteer firefighter who is a knife-and-fork member. This type only shows up at banquets. There are full-time firefighters who spend so much time off and on the job worrying about their off-duty employment that they don't give their time and attention to their own profession.
Then there are the opposite types. I have met volunteer firefighters who I would fight fire along side any day of the week. They are competent, capable, caring and courageous people. I have met full-time firefighters with who I would do likewise. I have come in contact with those who were much younger and much older than me who have been on both sides of these camps who care so much about their community that they will do almost anything to make sure the residents are adequately protected.
Consider this conflict in terms of the military. How could we possibly function in our current global involvement without adequately trained reserves? Our full-time military is not up to the task of multiple deployment. However, none of the citizen soldiers I know would voluntarily be replacing the paid guys if they had the choice. They are only brought into action if it is absolutely necessary in the public's interest.
Our law enforcement brethren recognized a long time ago that bringing in reserves, giving them the right kind of training and involving them in the profession has only improved their political standing in the community. It is common for elected officials to have served time as reserve police officers. And, we have had several national politicians who served as volunteer firefighters.
Another curious phenomenon is what happens to individuals who were once volunteers and become paid. For some, there is an almost mental reversal of their entire perspective on life the day they pass probation. I have watched extremely capable, competent volunteer firefighters become paid individuals and then within 12 months absolutely despise their brethren. And, I have watched full-time paid personnel who have retired, gone back into the volunteer fire service and manage to create all sorts of turmoil by trying to turn the volunteer fire department into something that it isn't.
I am unapologetic to either of those sides; there is room enough to co-exist. Some claim that volunteers just are not quite good enough for prime time. One reason we have leaders and change agents in the fire service is to ensure that our people have been adequately trained. Volunteers may want to criticize full-time firefighters for being paid to sleep on duty. If so, they ought to be thinking about the same concerns about their insurance agent who takes their money and invests it to be able to pay their losses at some future point. Or they must be equally critical of a schoolteacher who only works nine months out of the year. This is not about jealousy, this is not about envy, and this is not about those types of values that set one against another.
No, the bloodbath that we are engaged in is really about our sense of doing the right thing for the community. We ought to be banding together. Instead of being the Hatfields versus the McCoys, we should adopt the chewing-gum slogan of two benefits for one price. If and when cooler heads prevail, the American fire service will become the strength and the power that it ought to be in assuring community safety. I only wish that I could bring back Benjamin Franklin for a day. I cannot believe that he would be able to see these two as absolute adversaries.
With more than 40 years in the fire service, Ronny J. Coleman has served as fire chief in Fullerton and San Clemente, Calif., and was the fire marshal of the State of California from 1992 to 1999. He is a certified fire chief and a master instructor in the California Fire Service Training and Education System. A Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, he has an associate's degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in vocational education.