The volunteer fire/EMS/rescue service in North America is in a major and measurable crisis…not “gonna be in a crisis”…it IS in a crisis and few want to genuinely fix the problem. Now, when we say fix the problem, I mean fix it so when whoever dials 9-1-1, they hear fire apparatus sirens a few minutes later.
You may have seen the headlines just last week about another fire (an east cost community) where the volunteer fire department response time didn’t meet the needs of the people having the fire. People are up in arms-calling for a paid fire department….an understandable and emotional knee jerk reaction to the problem that’s been around for a while.
The problem I am, talking about is with an unstaffed fire department or company (members come from home or work) …and the tones go off, and they go off again-and they keep going off until maybe-someone responds-regardless of their qualification or abilities.
I want to clarify that I am going to narrow my focus on this problem on the suburban, populated areas. However, to be clear, if someone decides (for example) to live in a rural area, they will get a rural response which means a long and very limited response in most cases. You cannot, on one hand, want to live “miles from the nearest human being among nature” but then have an emergency and expect service a few minutes later. Other than rare occasions, your stuff is gonna burn up (without residential sprinklers) and whoever had the heart attack is in real, real trouble. That’s just how it generally works with rural living.
Additionally, I travel frequently and always have my scanner on-and in so many cases, like described, I hear tones…and then tones…and then tones…and the response is a crap shoot. I recently spoke with a fire chief friend who told me that one of his stations fails to turnout 50% of the time. 50% of the time, no one shows up.
A few years ago I heard a call for someone having trouble breathing-and tones went out-and then 3 minutes later the dispatcher advised that the person was having severe trouble breathing-and the tones went out-and then about 10 minutes into the run they advised the person was unconscious-and more tones went out-and then it was a non-breather-cardiac arrest-and tones didn’t matter any longer.
I can also give similar examples for fires-with this being one of my favorite (sad/reality) stories. A building fire was transmitted and the fire company had not turned out. So tones went off again. Eventually, about 10 minutes into the fire, an engine finally responded with a driver and 4 firefighters.
What happened at the fire is irrelevant.
The issue here is that the driver was 70 years old and the crew were high school firefighters age 17-who left school for the run. Any problem with that? ABSOLUTELY…that is NOT a fire department response on anyone’s calculations.
I don’t care if they were all able to blow the fire out, at 17 years old they are NOT qualified to do anything but support qualified, trained and experienced firefighters on a scene-and definitely not BE the firefighters. Do the math: 70+17+17+17+17=A veteran firefighter (who at age 70 SHOULD NOT have to be relied upon to get a rig out) and a bunch of (well meaning but unqualified) kids. Period.
While there are certainly some well staffed volunteer fire/EMS departments (primarily those who KNOW they have a crew either by mandated schedules, mandated in house duty crews or phone apps (such as IamResponding and others) so many more cannot assure a response. To be clear, those in charge such as elected officials, fire commissioners, boards of directors or whoever have a clear (and perhaps legal) obligation to fix the problem locally or regionally. It needs to be fixed for the people who make the donations, pay the taxes and have the emergencies. That’s pretty much it.
Some volunteer fire/rescue/EMS folks don’t like the word “mandate”…well, I don’t like the word “fat free” but I see it and face it everyday-if I want to continue enjoying life. Sometimes things are mandated for the good of those needing help. The greater good. Not the “greater you.”
-a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service. No where will you find anything that talks about “when you feel like it” or “on your own terms” or “when it’s not raining” — it means that the SERVICE has been defined and YOU VOLUNTARILY decided to assist in providing that service based upon what the community needs-not what you need.
In the above scenario about the 70 year old firefighter, a friend of mine (who lives in the biggest city in America) stated “that’s ridiculous-they need to have a paid fire department”…and I explained to her that it wasn’t that simple.
Or is it.
The volunteer service in North America has been declining for years for a variety of reasons. I believe that some of the main reasons the volunteer service suffers is because of:
1-An organizations unwillingness to change to meet the current community demands.
2-The way members are treated by the organization (policies, procedures, fairness, equality)
3-Time/availability and related membership requirements of which some are valid-and some are ridiculous and should no longer be required.
For example: fund raising. In 2019 where so many VFD’s can barely survive just training and responding, it is time for the burden of “fund raising” for the purpose of buying fire equipment to be replaced by a tax.
You don’t see cops “fundraising” to buy police cars, the mayor or city manager “fundraising” to buy their desk and the sanitation workers “fundraising” to buy garbage trucks. People don’t join volunteer fire/.EMS agencies in 2017 to raise money so they can train and run calls for free. Wake up.
I also believe a significant societal change has occurred-one that most cannot control. Quite simply, people feel they are very busy these days. Or at least it seems that way and that’s what people think. Google “Why are we so busy” and there are some great articles on that and you can reach your own conclusions.
SO NOW WHAT?
The bottom line is that volunteers join in order to help people having a bad day. So then, do that. But do it on the terms of those who need help-not your own terms. Not doing that but retaining unearned benefits is selfishness. Not doing so provided the community with a false sense that “those fire trucks will come roaring out of those bay doors if we need help 24/7/365” but that’s hardly the case.
When we look at STANDARDS.
(Angry crowd yells) “WE HATE STANDARDS.” Yeah, me too-at least some of them…but others make sense…so lets spend just one minute of your time looking into them. And lets look at them as if your family-spouse, partner, loved ones, kids, grandkids etc are the ones needing 9-1-1 emergency help…and they need it right now. Your loved ones.
According to the NFPA standards for volunteer department response:
• Urban Demand Zones (more than 1000 people per square mile) the minimum response staffing is 15 personnel, arriving at the scene within 9 minutes, for 90 percent of such calls.
• Suburban Demand Zones (500-1000 people per square mile) the minimum response staffing is 10 personnel, arriving at the scene within 10 minutes, for 80 percent of such calls.
• Rural Demand Zones (less than 500 people per square mile) the minimum response staffing is 6 personnel, arriving within 14 minutes, for 80 percent of such calls.
So, if your department falls into the UDZ…and that means 90% of the time (day, night etc) you (which may include automatic mutual aid etc) are expected to have 15 fully qualified fire folks (interior certified firefighters) on the scene in 9 minutes.
And the question is simple: can you do it or not? You know the answer-it’s in your company of departments stats for the past 5 years.
Now I know we hate standards, so lets remove the standard and ask the question: If your house was on fire or your kids needed emergency help, is 9 minutes acceptable to you. Well hot damn…it is that simple.
FIRE RESPONSE: Research shows that 30 years ago, people had about about 17 minutes to get out of a house fire. Today it’s down to 3 or 4 minutes because newer homes and the furniture inside burn a lot faster. 3 to 4 minutes.
EMS RESPONSE: Cardiac arrest: 8 minutes from event. Choking? Bleeding? You know the answers better than me.
So…can your volunteer department, company or district do the above for those people you love? Your stats and your hearts know the answer. Is it time to change? Your hearts and stats know that answer as well.
When a department can no longer meet industry standards-(community needs)-standards that were created because people burned up in fires, lost their homes, died in savable EMS scenarios etc, it is time to make it clear to the community what your departments capabilities are (what your dept can realistically do and not do) and give the community a choice is determining their level of service.
Changing (a/k/a evolving) does NOT have to mean the “death” of a volunteer department-however it does mean means a re-birth to stay focused on the original mission that the founders of that agency had in mind-helping people. Neighbors helping neighbors-that sorta stuff. . It may mean adding bunk rooms in and requiring members to pull a shift assuring rapid response….it may mean ENFORCING current rules requiring ALL members to maintain a certain level of activity, it may mean paying those members for their time….it may mean hiring people….it may mean consolidation, collaboration or mergers…it may mean numerous small communities fund a single “regional” engine company that’s well staffed, providing a rapid response to several areas…and it may mean all of the above along with some automatic mutual aid.
It will mean that your department needs to be honest with the community, present them with an intelligent and factual proposal of change and let them vote on whatever funds might be needed to provide the needed level of service. Maybe they like it the way it is…or maybe they have no clue and expect those trucks to come rolling down the street filled with qualified firefighters. It is up to them to decide but up to us to be honest.
While it can be a factor, attorneys (or the threat and worry of) should not be your focus—your focus should be on what’s best for those needing help-including your own family. Doing what is expected by a volunteer fire/rescue/EMS department is not always what’s best for the personal agendas of some of your members-and it never shoulda been.
Volunteer fire departments were formed to help fix a problem that existed at the time of formation. Unfortunately, while many communities have changed substantially. the fire protection “plan” or “system” remain the same as it did 50 years ago..back when they would blow the fire whistle and await the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to drop what they are doing and run to the firehouse.
But it’s 2019 and they aren’t coming.
Take Care. Be Careful. Pass it On.
(Commentary By Billy Goldfeder)