By Joseph V. Maruca
Writing for the NVFC
Imagine you are starting a professional football team. You begin by recruiting and hiring a group young, athletic men and women who love the idea of being professional football stars. You build a football stadium with all the bells and whistles. You create a state-of-the-art clubhouse and sports center.
You bring your new players into the clubhouse for their first day. It’s Shangri-La. It’s magical. They see themselves on the playing field defeating all comers. They imagine the cheering crowds, the fans, and the fame. They suit up in their new football uniforms with black helmets and a gold-leaf logo. Then it’s weeks and months of training and drilling. They pour their heart into becoming the best football players they can be.
Game day arrives. The players are psyched. The atmosphere is explosive. The crowd roars. The players rush out of the tunnel to the game in a haze of adrenaline and discover that they are playing baseball today!
“What the Fork!!! Hey coach what is this? I didn’t come here to play baseball. What do you expect me to do here? This is B.S.!”
This happens every day in the American fire service.
There’s a major difference between what firefighters do every day and what everyone (and that includes us) thinks that we do. And that disconnect is one of the biggest barriers to success, especially in the volunteer fire service. What is the difference between how we see ourselves and what we are? It is this: We think of ourselves as firefighters. The public sees us as firefighters. But the reality is most of what we do have nothing to do with firefighting. And people don’t think they can or should volunteer with our departments because they don’t picture themselves as firefighters.
I observe a lot of oppositional behavior in the volunteer service. I observe departments with poor morale. I listen to chiefs complain about firefighters who don’t come to calls and lack pride in their department. Much (not all) of the reason for these behaviors is the result of firefighters still thinking we are firefighters.
You can’t expect to recruit firefighters with visions of battling flames and being heroes and expect them to have esprit des corps and high motivation when they discover they’ll be doing nothing but riding in an ambulance, cleaning toilets, checking equipment they never use, and figuring out why someone’s smoke alarm has been beeping all day.
The volunteer fire service is facing declining enrollment in our departments. This is coming at the same time that demand for emergency services—but generally not firefighting—is at an all-time high and growing. Yet we, the leadership of our departments, have failed to see how our image – and the bait-and-switch we are putting out – are hindering our efforts to recruit and retain more volunteers.
For instance, my own department has a volunteer firefighter recruitment poster that is all about firefighting. It looks great. It screams firefighting. However, out of the 661 emergency calls we responded to in 2018, only 27 had anything to do with firefighting. Just about four percent of our emergency calls required firefighting. Most of the time we don’t need firefighters to respond to emergencies. Sixty-five percent of the time we need EMTs and paramedics. Four percent of the time we need firefighters.
I don’t suggest that we can run our departments with only four percent of our staff being firefighters. I do suggest that volunteer fire departments need to invest in recruiting and retaining EMTs, medics, and others who might not be full-fledged firefighters. A hundred percent of firefighters cross-trained as EMTs and paramedics is a great goal, but it is difficult to achieve in a small town with a volunteer fire department and still expect to have enough responders to cover your calls in a timely and safe fashion.
And don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that anyone who gets on a fire truck, responds to a fire, and engages in firefighting needs to be a firefighter and meet the professional standards of NFPA 1001. But if you get in a pickup truck and clear streets after a hurricane or go out to help people with flooded basements, you don’t need to be a firefighter. There needs to be a place in our organizations for people who aren’t firefighters, and it needs to be an equal place, not a second-class citizenship.
In other words, we need to also recruit people whose primary interest isn’t firefighting (and then maybe turn them into firefighters). In order to do this, we need to change our self-image and our public image to embrace what we do 96 percent of the time, especially EMS.
While many of us in the volunteer fire service have talked about this, we really haven’t acted upon it. For instance, many departments (including mine) cling to the great euphemism “rescue.” You all can recognize it as in “fire-rescue” on the back of the T-shirt. Rescue is the code word for EMS by firefighters who maybe wish they did more firefighting and less EMS. Maybe we should start by changing our T-shirts to read “Fire-EMS” or, even more radically, “EMS-Fire.”
Let’s change our recruitment posters and recruitment Facebook posts to place at least an equal focus on EMS and non-fire emergencies. Let’s tell new recruits what the job is really about up-front by including non-fire emergency training and EMS in our recruit academies.
Let’s stop treating EMS as a punishment. You know, all the veteran members are exempt from ambulance duty and you new guys/gals have to ride the ambulance for years before you can touch a fire truck.
If the volunteer fire service is going to survive, we need a lot of new members. We need women to join as well as people from diverse backgrounds and racial and ethnic groups. We need people from all age groups and who have varying amounts of time to devote to volunteering. And we need people who are not primarily interested in fires to join. We need to open our ranks to a wider range of people than simply firefighters. And, for our firefighters, we need to improve their morale by ending the bait-and-switch.
Joe Maruca is chief of the West Barnstable (MA) Fire Department, a combination fire department on Cape Cod. He served as a volunteer firefighter from 1977 until becoming chief in 2005. He is a director of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and represents the NVFC on the NFPA 1917 Technical Committee. Joe is a retired attorney and Of Counsel to the Crowell Law Office in Yarmouthport, concentrating in the area of estate planning.