One weekend a month, and two weeks a year.” What a great slogan the U.S. Army Reserves once had for recruitment! For years, the Reserves used that slogan, the GI college tuition fund, and the prospect of an additional source of retirement income as recruitment and retention incentives. Could a similar program work for the fire service?
Consider how many hours you spend on fire department activities-a week, a month, or a year? If you add up all the hours a volunteer firefighter spends annually on alarms, weekly drills, required annual training, advanced classes, emergency medical technician recertification, and seminars, you would be very surprised. That does not even include the additional tasks and paperwork required of an officer. I’ll bet it would be much more than just “one weekend a month and two weeks a year.”
I’m not putting down any of the armed services for what they do for our communities and our country. Many Reservists and National Guard personnel are putting it on the line right now and will continue well into the future to keep this country safe. But, we also put our lives on the line each time the pager goes off. If a natural disaster or terrorist event should occur, we, the local firefighters, would be the first responders, not the government; we would be lucky if we saw its representatives in a few days.
We are all aware of dwindling membership in the volunteer fire service. Those who joined 20 and 30 years ago are getting older and are retiring. Many of the members who joined in their early 20s a few years ago are now moving away to find affordable housing and better employment, or else they don’t come home after graduating college.
The time commitment is another reason members give for leaving and prospective members give for not joining the volunteer fire service. There is just not enough time for many people to volunteer anymore. With the two-income homes, longer commutes, and a greater number of activities for children that we all “have to do,” the available time per week has been greatly reduced. Additionally, the annual number of alarms and hours of required training have increased as well.
A NEW TRAINING PLAN
What can we do about this? Although we cannot change the cost of living, commute times, or our required family activities, we can change how we train and when we train. “One weekend a month and two weeks a year.” Can this work for us? Can we get those two weeks?
Suppose the prospective volunteers’ salary could be covered for two weeks and they did not have to take vacation time or time off without pay to train with your department. Too many of us have used our valuable vacation time to train for our communities and not for our families and ourselves. Look at what we can get for the hours.
Assume a normal workweek of 40 hours (although many of us work more than that); the two weeks would give us 80 hours of training. That does not require using any “extra” time at night or on weekends. If you add two or three hours on a few nights, or maybe a Saturday, you can have upward of 100 hours in the two weeks to train. Two 50-hour weeks-this is the normal week for many people today.
What can you do with those 100 hours? In New York State, you could put a new probie through a Firefighter I class (78 hours), giving that person the training needed to go to and be productive at alarms, not just stand there as a witness. These two weeks of training could take the place of a 13-week course, which typically requires two three-hour night classes a week. Such a course necessitates that students drive to and from the training center 26 times, which, figuring on 30 minutes each way, results in a grand total of 104 hours spent for a 78-hour course. That means 104 hours away from their family, home, and the firehouse, plus the fuel and vehicle costs. If a two-week course were available, it would mean only 10 days of commuting, less time in the car, less gas, and fewer hours spent (88) for the same course.
Now, let’s take a firefighter who has been around for a few years and wants to become an engine or a truck operator. Using the policy my district is using in conjunction with New York State course regulations, an operator would have to complete emergency vehicle operations (24 hours), pump operations (24 hours), and ladder operations (24 hours), for a total of 74 training hours. All of the paper, classroom, and numbers learning can be completed within the two-week period in one shot. There could even be time for true hands-on training if all the more advanced engine and truck classes are taken at the same time as Firefighter I and II classes.
It might not sound like much, but in approximately two weeks, a firefighter can complete the required courses to be an active member or a certified operator of an engine and a truck. By no means is that person qualified to operate at an alarm without guidance or to drive to the first call when coursework is complete, but that person at least has the long paper part and basic hands-on part of the training completed-the most difficult parts to complete today.
COST VS. BENEFIT
How much would this cost? Let’s consider a fire district with 100 active members and an average firefighter annual salary of $50,000. The weekly gross pay before taxes, health care, or retirement deductions would be $961 or $1,923 for the two-week period, rounded off to $2,000.
In a fire district of 100 active members, you will have “truly active” members, and some just on the rolls. Let’s assume that 70 percent of the members, or 70 firefighters, are truly active. How many will we train per year? A difficult question, but let’s look at our history. You might get five new members a year and maybe the same number of new operators. Add in 10 officers and other members, and you have 20 members being trained per year using this method.
Now the math: 20 members times $2,000 (two weeks gross salary) or $40,000 per year to fund. What a huge amount of money! But consider how much money the taxpayers save by using volunteer fire departments every year. The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates we save $37.2 billon in the United States using volunteer firefighters. Now, how many firefighters can you train before you get to $37.2 billion?
If we look at the cost above, it might look impossible, but it could be cheaper in the long run. How? If we lose members or cannot sustain membership, we will have to hire paid firefighters. A paid firefighter’s salary is much more than the $40,000. Figuring on a starting annual salary of $35,000, plus insurance, retirement, and training costs, this adds up to more than $60,000 per year per firefighter, not including yearly salary increases, overtime, vacation time, and any injury time. So the $40,000 is not so high after all.
Most fire districts cannot afford $40,000, but some could. If the cost is too high, adjust the program. Reduce the number of members who can complete this “two-weeks-a year” training program. Rotate the membership-if you receive the two weeks this year, you may have to skip a year or two. Just give all members the opportunity to complete this training over their years of service.
So how much does this cost our taxpayers (the people we have sworn to protect)? If your fire district has a tax rate of $4 per assessed $1,000 with a yearly budget of $750,000, the total increase would be only $0.21 per assessed $1,000. So, for a few dollars per household, the volunteer membership could receive additional training without requiring the members to pay for it in vacation or unpaid time off to get more training faster.
I am not sure of the legalities of using taxpayers’ money to pay a volunteer’s salary, but the United States Department of Labor has determined that it is legal to expend up to 20 percent of the total cost of a paid position to a volunteer as compensation with the person maintaining volunteer status.1 So with a program such as this, retirement programs, which were enacted a number of years ago, maybe training and retention programs also can be supported. It is something to look into as a possible solution to the growing problems of volunteer shortages and required fire department training.
SAFETY IS NOT FREE
Of those who think that “volunteers” should not get any compensation for their efforts, times have changed. Thirty years or more ago, the times and requirements were different. But what was true then and is now is that volunteers should not have to pay money out of their own pocket, whether in unpaid salary or hard-earned vacation time, to protect their communities. We are in different times today. The age of something for nothing is over, and if the communities want the very affordable services a volunteer fire department provides and to keep its members highly trained, more money is needed to maintain that service. But even so, it is just a fraction of the cost of a paid or even a combination department.
The only way such a program could be implemented would be to get the government involved, which means politicians. There are state and federal laws that require that employers allow their employees leave with or without pay to perform their civic duty and protect our country through the Reserves without the risk of losing their jobs. Although this provision can be and is a drain and an imposition on an employer, what would the cost to the employer be if the volunteer department were replaced with a career department? Once that cost is created, it will never be taken away or reduced; it will only increase with time.
So if the local, state, and federal officials really want to stand behind what they say and want to support the fire service, that includes the volunteers, doesn’t it? It is time to start putting effort and money into the volunteer fire service so it can keep protecting our citizens at a reasonable cost and keep this American tradition going for years to come. Remember, we give more than just one weekend a month and two weeks per year.
Thanks to Jerry Knapp of the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Company and Chris Flatley of the Blauvelt (NY) Volunteer Fire Company for their assistance with this article.
1. “Volunteer Firefighter Compensation Clarified: IAFC Victory Establishes Bright Line Test,” International Association of Fire Chiefs Web site: www.iafc.org/displayindustryarticle.cfm?articlenbr=31257.
TIM PILLSWORTH is chief of the Winona Lake Engine Company No. 2 in Orange County, New York; a 21-year veteran firefighter/EMT; and a civil engineer at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York.