BY JOHN M. BUCKMAN
The future of the fire service depends on presenting one unified front that communicates a shared vision of what the fire service should look like. In recent days, weeks, and months, we have seen actions by our own that have threatened community fire protection.
There is a debate between career and volunteer firefighters about who provides the highest level and quality of fire protection-related services. That debate will go on forever and is really not up to the firefighter to answer.
I believe the level and quality of fire protection are determined locally. The responsibility for informing a community about the level and quality is the duty of the fire chief, community leaders, citizens, and elected officials.
There are communities where the volunteer fire department has not kept pace with community development. If this failure is a result of an uninformed community, the fault lies with the chief and may open the chief and the department up to valid criticism. If the chief has informed the community of the need for more personnel, equipment, and apparatus and the community has failed to respond, then that determines the level of services for the community.
It is the obligation of the chief to inform and educate the elected officials and the community; but, in my opinion, you must give the people what they want and what they are willing to pay for. If the chief has done a good job of informing and educating the community, then there will not be a threat from an outside agency or organization to take over or replace the volunteer fire department. The community must determine the level of fire protection and related services it needs. It is up to the chief to convince a community’s leadership of the potential risks in the community and the expected effects of ignoring those risks. By establishing the relationship between the community and the fire department, the challenge of dealing with the everyday emergencies that arise to the expectations of that community will be met, eliminating the thought that the fire department will go out of business.
I believe the volunteer fire service must look to the future and ensure that the level and quality of service being provided today exceed those of five or 10 years ago. Volunteer fire departments need to examine alternative methods of providing service. They must think beyond the front door of the fire station to solve fire protection needs. Involve the community in the challenges facing the volunteer fire service today.
Volunteer fire departments need to change if they are going to keep up with a changing community. There are many departments that believe they should continue doing the same thing that they have always done and yet expect a different result. Buckets were used at one time to extinguish fires, but we know today to expect to use buckets would be ludicrous. Doing the same things that were done in the past will not get different results.
All public services are under intense scrutiny. Volunteer fire departments need to look at the image they are portraying. Professional is not just a word; it refers to actions. Volunteers can be just as professional as career firefighters. It is actions that determine professionalism, not pay. Volunteers need to closely examine the image they portray in the community. They must look at such things as drinking in the fire station, driving apparatus and vehicles, uniforms, training standards, physical standards, and officer requirements. The public respect as a result of 9-11 has increased, but we sometimes are our own worst enemies when we don’t act and look like a professional. It is difficult to develop and implement professional standards in a volunteer fire department, but complying with standards is a requirement if the department wants to compete in today’s world.
If they are to compete on an equal basis with other groups, volunteer fire departments must be given adequate financial resources to acquire equipment and apparatus. Time spent on fund-raising activities actually takes away from the duties of volunteer firefighters. Time spent raising funds robs volunteers’ time and threatens their ability to increase their professionalism through training and education. If a community does not provide adequate financial resources for a volunteer fire department to operate, it may be penny wise and dollar foolish, since the cost to staff and operate one career fire truck is about $1 million annually. That money will come directly from the taxpayers and, in most communities, will be exceedingly more than they are paying today for the volunteer fire department to operate.
Communities and elected officials must provide support to volunteer fire departments. If volunteer firefighters are to survive, they must receive adequate financial support in the form of benefits and incentives-much like career firefighters, but without the salary.
A longtime myth states that volunteers take jobs away from career firefighters. I believe that volunteer firefighters have been around longer than career firefighters. In my opinion, this is a myth that will never go away. How can you take something away from those who never had it in the first place?
As a volunteer firefighter for 32 years, I am not threatened by career firefighters. I am proud of who I am as an individual and what I represent. No one can take that away from me. I have many good friends who are career firefighters; many of them are chiefs of career departments. It should be a natural transition for many volunteer fire departments to transform from an all-volunteer department, where there are no benefits, to one where benefits are provided that might include hiring paid on-call or full-time firefighters. This transition, if necessary, should not be feared but accepted as a normal part of growing and expanding with the community.
Having career firefighters work within volunteer fire departments requires new challenges and opportunities that will take strong leadership. It will take hiring the right personnel to participate in the new department. It will require the right attitude of the volunteers within the department to not look at the career firefighters as the result of failure to provide but to look at them as a way to effectively and professionally keep up with the ever-growing needs of the community.
The selection process for officers who lead today’s volunteer fire departments must be refined. The old way of selecting officers by popular vote does not always guarantee competency. In many career fire departments, the hiring process for new recruits and the promotional process have changed from one of political connections, payoffs, and scandals to one of qualifications through a testing and competitive process. In many career fire departments, you could be chief one day and firefighter the next, depending on the political election process. The volunteer fire department must examine the selection process for its officers to ensure that the most qualified and competent members are in leadership positions and that term limits and other factors do not remove competent officers arbitrarily.
Requirements for and responsibilities of a competent fire officer are complex. Experience is an important factor in assessing capabilities of officers; and in today’s fire service, firefighting experience is hard to come by except by seniority-and seniority alone does not necessarily make a competent leader.
People have often told me that they were afraid that their departments would be taken over by career firefighters. That can occur only if they don’t provide the services that the community needs and wants. Volunteers should not view career firefighters as a threat or as failure on their part but as an opportunity to analyze the differences inherent in each of these styles of service in a professional manner.
In some areas of the country, a debate rages as some local unions have forced their members not to volunteer in the communities in which they live; conversely, some local volunteer companies have adamantly fought the move to hire career firefighters because their communities’ needs have changed. I don’t agree with this tactic, but it is allowed under federal law and union regulations. Volunteers must constantly explain the value they bring to the community and the cost/benefit of maintaining an adequately funded and efficiently run volunteer fire department while constantly providing an accurate cost/benefit analysis considering the financial burden of operating and maintaining a fully career fire department. Think of any attempt at a hostile takeover as a challenge as well as an opportunity for the volunteer fire service to honestly evaluate and complete a comprehensive needs assessment to enhance and provide the most professional, customer service-oriented fire department that the community can support.
We are all in this war together-it is about taking care of the brothers and sisters who are doing the job. Both sides in this debate have used exaggeration, hyperbole, and other unsavory tactics that many in the community we serve see as self-serving. We should state our facts clearly and indisputably and let the community decide the level of fire protection that best suits its needs. If the recent events of 9-11 have not vividly demonstrated to each of us that we need each other more now than ever, what more of a sign do we need? WE ALL WEAR THE SAME UNIFORM!
JOHN M. BUCKMAN is chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, where he has served for 22 years, and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section and is past chairman. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.