Small Departments Face Big Problems
The volunteer fire forces of the nation today face many grave problems. One of the worst is that of keeping pace with the growth in fire hazards and resultant increasing need of improved fire protection in their districts.
Today, with the shifts in population in business and industry and the rapid growth of all-weather highways, there are no longer any rural and suburban fire departments. There are just fire departments—paid, part-paid and volunteer. Just as fire hazards know no geography, so too is the problem of fire suppression universal.
And while fire hazards, and demands upon the fire forces of our towns, villages and districts multiply and intensify, the costs to maintain and operate these forces are increasing. At the same time, also, the tasks of keeping the volunteer organizations at a high level of operating efficiency with the facilities at hand are growing apace.
Today, surrounding nearly every large city are costly real estate, mercantile and industrial developments which present riddles in fire suppression never before anticipated by those who set up the original fire defenses in those areas.
It matters little what impelled business and industry to move from the city to the hinterlands; it may have been to escape city taxes; to decentralize in fear of enemy attack; or to improve manufacturing and living conditions. The simple fact is that the changes have come about, and are continuing, and they have introduced new and, to many firemen, bewildering hazards and fire control problems, as typified by the vast housing developments, huge shopping centers and supermarkets, out-of-door theatres and sports arenas.
Evidence of the seriousness of the situation is seen in the study of large-loss fires over the past few years. More than half the conflagrations (fires entailing losses of $250,000 or over) have occurred outside the city limits and were fought, at least in their early stages, by volunteers.
These volunteers cannot necessarily be blamed for the resulting high losses. In many cases the cards were stacked against them before the fire occurred, or before they ever reached the fire ground. It is doubtful if even the largest municipal paid department could have controlled most of them, taking into account the types of buildings and occupancies involved, the delayed discovery and tardy alarm of fire, and the lack of modern fire detection, alarm transmission and extinguishing facilities.
It is manifestly absurd to expect fire departments— volunteers in particular—which were organized and equipped to cope with only the simplest, commonplace types of fires such as have previously been encountered in rural and suburban areas, to successfully combat today’s complex, even deadly types of blazes that eventuate in these new hazards. Indeed it is remarkable that volunteers have managed to achieve the high plane of efficiency which distinguishes so many of them, in the light of the failure of local and area government to support them financially and in other ways.
It is high time that our volunteer fire forces were reviewed and re-evaluated, in view of their present and future responsibilities. It is time that they were given financial as well as moral encouragement. It should no longer be necessary for them to have to finance their own essential operations—to pay for the privilege of risking their necks. The businesses and industries which they must protect should pay their just share of that protection.
Mutual aid, under the organized county or area protection plan, is an asset of course; but it calls for cooperation and coordination of all fire protection forces, public and private. If outright fully-paid or paid and part-volunteer area protection such as is successfully being practiced in some localities is the answer, then let’s have it.
The situation calls for action—by the public, industry, government, and by the fire service itself—and now!