Has the urban world passed by the vollies?

Let me throw out a little comment bait for you. I had a conversation last night with a friend who volunteers in the DC area in a large combination department. He has a hard time understanding why the paid guys act like they don’t want him around. My explanation was simple, to wit: they act like they don’t want you around because they DON’T want you around!

This fire service is not your father’s fire service. We do so much more than structure fires and motor vehicle incidents that it’s easier to say what we don’t do (anything requiring a gun) than what we do do. All the various disciplines that are folded into our field maintain a common thread: protecting life and property from physical harm. People wonder why EMS or rescue naturally fold into the fire service and that is the answer: because the fire service has always been about life safety. As the slate of services people demand from the state expands, anything in that vein will be folded into the fire service.

The mission is no different today than it was in 1920. We have always been there to protect lives and property. The difference is only in what people demand of the state. When they only demanded that their house not be burned down when their neighbor’s house caught fire, they got an engine and 10 or 15 volunteers and their demands were satisfied. Today they demand that they be protected from complex and dynamic hazards that require a level of technical specialty unheard of 50 years ago. They demand that they be protected from a chlorine release, from anthrax letters, and from death by heart attack. Even the fire suppression they demand is several orders of magnitude more complex and threatening than it was 100 years ago. Our command systems probably ought to be properly taught only in undergraduate courses.

I will make a bold and unpopular pronouncement: there is too much to know how to do, and do well, for a volunteer to keep up. I was a volunteer for nine years and would happily volunteer again if I had the opportunity. For most of those nine years I was involved in training the membership. We had good, dedicated, smart people. They could hump hose, force doors, and cut holes on the roof with the best of them. But no more than one or two of the homegrown guys could command a modern house fire, and that only passably. None of them could begin to extricate a patient from depths or to mitigate a radiological event. And forget the time and training necessary to obtain and maintain ALS proficiency.

But those are the threats that the public demands the state respond to today. The state’s best asset to do so is the local fire department. The volunteer fire service, even in its strongest bastions, cannot do what is asked of it. Yeah, it can put out fires. A lot of volly departments kick ass at the house fire or the taxpayer job. Far fewer have adequate command systems and vanishingly few have the technical capabilities demanded in an urban environment.

So my argument comes full circle. Politicians really do tell paid guys they don’t need more staff because they have volunteers to back them up. The volunteers are, in nearly all cases, unable to meet the requirements demanded of a modern fire service. The net result is that the local fire department lacks the technical expertise at depth that is required to meet its mandate. Right or wrong, that is reality from where I sit, as a lover of the volunteer fire service and a former NVFC annual member. Volunteers want to know why the paid guys in some places don’t want them around; there’s your answer.

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25 Responses to Has the urban world passed by the vollies?

  1. Bill Carey says:

    “I will make a bold and unpopular pronouncement: there is too much to know how to do, and do well, for a volunteer to keep up. ”

    A very profound statement I agree with. Understanding the limitations in a department and accepting them is a hard task for many volunteer departments.

    Bill C.

  2. John says:


    I agree with you 100%. But I think the career fire service is in for a rough haul for a while. I’ll play devil’s advocate: you’re agreeing with the politicians that volunteers are adequate firefighters. Thanks to modern fire prevention efforts and education, fires are down XX%. So they think “if we privatize the ambulance and hazmat response, why do we need professional firefighters at all?” Or, “why can’t we man every fire station with 2 drivers and have them handle the every day EMS and alarms, and only call the volunteers for actual fires?” After all, “the volunteers will do it for a red light on their car and civic pride, while you union bloodsuckers all think you deserve high wages and a jackpot pension.” All the better so they can waste the money on a new stadium or city hall complex, or reduce taxes to get reelected.

    On the other hand, I doubt the volunteer service can survive in our increasingly self-centered culture, especially with real wages and income dropping. Once the career fire service is gutted, I wonder where they will find all those dedicated volunteers and eager young EMTs to do the work for free or for 30% of our wages and no pension. After all, a significant percentage of the folks in those positions now are doing so to make themselves competitive for a career fire job. For those that do accept those conditions, how long will they stay? We may see a resurgence of the career fire service down the road, but I will bet it will be smaller and more regionalized than it is now.

  3. Patrick says:

    The fire service in general, and the career fire service especially, have done an extremely poor job of articulating a compelling reason why the public should support us. Most firefighters think it begins and ends with the self-evident declaration that “we’re heroes!” That’s not how it works.

    I think regionalization will come to this country as time goes on and leaders realize that it is the only viable option to provide service in a regional area.

    This is another post for another day, but I wonder how long it will take unions to realize that the best way to improve working conditions is through career portability. We need to be able to seek employment in a laterally competitive market.

  4. Patrick says:

    I’m not sure how much sense that made; I’m in class right now and splitting my attention.

  5. John says:

    Portability will be tough, because it will require change to the #1 thing we insist they leave alone: pensions. Those will have to be regionalized too, and no one will agree on which system will be the standard.

  6. Jack R says:

    To play devil’s advocate, it’s also an issue of size. Where I work, I don’t have to know much about hazmat or technical rescue. We have spec ops people for that. I simply do suppression and basic EMS. That is a luxury of having lots of resources. I just have to know my job really well rather than being a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

    Volunteers on the other hands solve this problem by either

    1) relying on the career dept nearby for MA
    2) just don’t mitigate the problem properly

  7. Dave says:

    I agree with Patrick on one thing…we in the career departments have done a piss poor job promoting ourselves. Why can we not show the public what they get for their tax dollars??? I submit someone smarter than me can figure out how much it costs per capita for fire service. Then let the public in your jurisdiction know that, for X amount of money per year, if you have a problem, from a hangnail to a plane crash, call 911 and in approximately 3-7 minutes we will arrive to address and mitigate your personal emergency. We do this without any added or hidden fees. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in any weather.

    I can’t understand why we don’t point this stuff out.

  8. Josh says:

    I think it is an oversimplification to differentiate the fire service on volunteer and paid status alone. Too many other variables exist that effect success that narrowing it down to just one does an injustice to the other. I see more benefit in comparing departmental resources to success than I do comparing their paid/volunteer status to success.

    My perspective though may be swayed by the fact that I work for a volunteer department and served happily as a volunteer for nearly 6 years. From my perspective, the volunteer fire service has just as much to provide to the community as does the paid service. It really just comes down to resources. Many volunteer departments, with appropriate resources, are thriving and providing professional care and service to their community. On the other hand, it would not take long to identify paid departments that are struggling to provide similar service. Unfortunately, one would only need to review some of the NIOSH LODD reports and Near Misses for examples. While volunteers are dying in tanker accidents, career firefighters are dying in fires…..the task they’re supposed to be superior at.

    Regardless of its paid or volunteer membership, departments without the necessary resources will flounder. It’s just that simple. On the flip side, while resources can certainly benefit a department, they by no means guarantee success.

    On a side note, I seldom feel sorry for the career fire service when they complain about the number of tasks they respond to without increased benefits. In my opinion, the fire service brings much of this on themselves. For instance, I read in a trade publication within the last month that emergency management will have to be a requirement for future firefighters…..because the public demands it. Umm, pardon me, but I’ve never heard one member of the public say “gee, I sure wish you guys did emergency management too, then I’d surely support your next bond issue/raise.”

    The fire service much too often ASSUMES that the public wants something without every getting confirmation. For the record, I find the notion of the fire service assuming the emergency management function mostly absurd. Professionals exist, schooled in professional programs, to perform these functions. It’s high time for the fire service to quite trying to do everything and focus on selling what we do best. After all, we don’t see law enforcement trying to gobble up every little niche market and look how much money they have.

    Rather than asking if the fire service has outgrown the volunteers, I’d ask if the career fire service has outlived their needs and turned into a typical bureaucracy that just won’t go away (a la ATF).

    • Patrick says:


      Could it be that fewer volunteers die in structure fires because they don’t make interior attacks at anywhere near the rate that paid guys do? There are a number of reasons that might be the case.

      • Mac says:

        I’ve seen a lot of aggressive interior attacks on house fires by Vollie depts. And on your comment that they don’t make as many as a paid dept, it goes back to resources again. Vollie Depts have “just exterior” guys “Inside guys” “traffic guys” ect ect. If they don’t have enough people to get the truck there, set up water supply, pump the truck, run the hose, and fight the fire, the attacks don’t happen quickly enough.

        My Vollie Dept goes to stand in/help the paid depts near by a lot. I know this is just me, and other states/areas may not have that happen, but the city(s) then get a truck full of Vollies (only sending the ones who are trained well enough) For FREE. So while all the Paid guys are working, getting paid, the Vollies sit and wait, ready to do what they can, for free. But there’s the issue of Paid guys not wanting Vollies around. Say you have the whole city dept AT a call, working it. Another comes in. Your nearest help is 15-30 minutes away. Now what? You COULD have had a FREE truck ready to go and be to the new call in 3-7 minutes, but now you gotta wait for the Vollies to get to the station, pick who goes, and then send them out.

  9. Jeremiah Rathbun says:

    From a volunteer’s stand point… The local career stations down the road have the big budgets. The newest equipment, and the opportunities to get the most up to date training available. However, they don’t seem to put their hearts into it! They go around town looking pretty and respond accordingly, but they tend to pull the “Not my job” card. I am not saying all career firemen are like that, just speaking from experience. We volunteers may not have the high dollar apparatus, or the newest BA’s, but we have a short response time, and leave the house standing. We extricate quickly and safely, and respond to countless medical calls. Yes, we do depend on MA from the career guys for advanced situations like hazmat, but we are the ones walking through the woods and putting boats in the water for searches. We recover bodies from homes that have been in there for weeks in the heat. We stand by when law enforcement is clearing out a Meth lab. We train on as much as we can, taking into consideration the likely situations we will come across. In my county, volunteers are all there is. We wake up at 2am for a fire, and turn around to be at work at 7:30. Come home at 5 or 6pm. Sit down for dinner, take a few bites, and leave the table to help who ever may need it. Career has a duty schedule. Volunteers jump when the tone sounds, regardless of where we are at the time. Home, restaurant, grocery shopping, visiting friends! We don’t consider ourselves heroes, it’s just what we do. We save lives and property of our neighbors! We know our neighbors by name. We laugh with them… We cry with them… We share our joys and fears with them. We do what we do, because we care about our neighbors. Career tends to work in an area that they don’t even live in sometimes and don’t know the people in their coverage area. Fire fighting has to be in the blood. For the right reasons! Money is not the right reason… Just sayin’

    I am not bad mouthing career, I just can’t stand volunteers not being given credit where credit is due. We are intelligent enough to go through any training that career does, we just don’t have the funding for it.

    • Patrick says:


      I give volunteers credit where it is due. I have no doubt whatsoever that your department does a good job fighting the fires and extricating the patients, and I said as much in my post. I was a volunteer and some of the best fire service education I’ve received has been from volunteers. But almost without exception it was task-level training with only a little tactical-level thrown in. In my experience (and since there’s no real research in the fire service, that’s all any of us has), volunteers are sorely, sorely lacking on the strategic level of operations and knowledge.

      • Benjamin says:

        Hi Patrick,

        I’ll state up front I’m a volunteer but I’ll also state I’ve no axe to grind with the career guys – rather the opposite. I of course can only speak for my area, Laramie County, Wyoming. Laramie County encompasses Cheyenne, Wyo (which has it’s own department) and vast stretches of rural areas. That said, the career folks on the County Dept, do, in my opinion, a good job of working with those of us in the more rural areas that are vollies.

        I wonder if your last statement is something of a jump point for how to work out this whole vollie/career debate. You noted “volunteers are sorely lacking on the strategic level of operations and knowledge.” I would agree with that so can not some sort of hybrid model exist where the strategy comes from the career folks and the actual work can be filled out with the likes of the vollies — lets face it, sometimes you really just need bodies who can do what they’re told. Just a thought.

      • Dalmatian90 says:

        >volunteers are sorely, sorely lacking on the strategic level of
        >operations and knowledge.

        There are very, very few people in business or government at any level who are competent at a strategic level.

        Most get stuck at the Objectives stage in the continuum of skills – tasks – tactics – objectives – strategy. You can be very, very good at objectives at completely suck at strategy, i.e. the Vietnam War or the Obama administration. (The dig at Obama is not political; there’s a reason they achieve objectives like “let’s win the White House; let’s pass a healthcare bill; let’s pass a Financial Reform bill” and yet they have found themselves occupying the wrong thought-space of the majority of voters…they such at strategy.)

  10. Jack R says:

    Josh, regarding the comment about career FF’s dying inside –

    Volunteers aren’t making interior attacks nearly as often. Fighting row house fires in Philadelphia and Baltimore or high rises in NYC, Houston, LA is exponentially more complicated and risky than a barn fire or a 1500 sq. ft ranch house. Career departments generally will have a much higher tolerance for risk too.

    Whenever I hear the term “interior-rated” I get confused. If you’re a fireman, you can go inside. If you have a department that distinguishes between those you can go inside and those who can’t…bad news.

  11. Jack R says:

    Also, my experience (in my part of the country at least) has been that volunteers typically have much more and better resources than career departments. 80 – 90% of career budgets go to pay salaries. Volunteers, though with much smaller budgets, can devote theirs to the latest and greatest new Pierce gizmo w/ a 5000 gpm pump.

    Again, anecdotal, but just so you’re aware of realities in other parts of the world.

    In more rural areas, I could imagine the strain of getting decent resources for a dept though.

  12. Chad says:

    Would just like to say that one who makes comments about about career firefighting without being a career firefighter has no idea what we do or deal with budget or lack of!Most career have done both!I was a vol. (6yrs) and career for almost 9yrs! When I first became a professional firefighter I thought as a vol. I knew alot!I knew shit to what I really needed to know!The only thing more dangerous than not knowing what you are doing is not knowing what you are doing and think you really do!In my opinion career and vols. don’t mix!Compisite depts. don’t work in most cases.In our case, our vols. are unionized and have gone to council and said they don’t need the career staff they can do it all!Vols. do a great job in those areas were they have no choice!

    • Patrick says:

      Suffice it to say that the hard feelings and prejudice go both ways.

      Let’s all not let this devolve into a pissing match. The question is no more than, is the volunteer fire service a viable service delivery model in today’s urban environment?

  13. Doug says:

    This topic has been discussed at length in all of the trade rags, and addressed by every fire service group with an interest in volunteer recruitment and retention. It’s quite obvious that a guy who is working a “real job” 60+ hours a week can hardly master the science of the fire service, much less the art of what we do. Hell, I spend much more time than that at work every week and still have very little idea of what’s going on.

    What’s interesting to note, though, is that the same basic question—whether a department can provide the specialty services that are now expected of those of us on the “front lines” of “homeland security”—is, and has been, asked of the career arm of the fire service. A Fire Engineering roundtable in 2005 addressed this issue, and included numerous responses from the normal brain trust of fire service leaders. The general consensus seems to be one with which I wholeheartedly agree: In a department staffed only with general-use firefighters or firefighter/medics, the burden of hazardous materials response, technical rescue, safe/effective command and control, etc. cannot be met.

    This lack of ability to respond safely and mitigate the situation excellently in a department lacking specialized resources is not, by any means, a problem specific to the volunteer fire service, and points to the real problem at hand: Have the needs (wants) of the citizenry surpassed the capabilities of the entry-level hose-hauler on the floor at any fire station, in any city, regardless of region or size? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes.

    Of course, the simple answer for an urban or metro-area career department involves unit or company specialization. Being a water-chunker and following a red helmet down a hallway is not exactly rocket science, so there is plenty of room left in everyone’s brain to learn to do something else, and do it well, and there are plenty of people to whom we can teach things. We take this company, and teach them to be hazmateers, we take another company, and teach them to be rope wranglers, we take this company, and teach them to trek into remote areas and assess/treat envenomation emergencies, etc. Every fireman learns to do two things (put the wet stuff on the red stuff, and blank) really well. We then develop a system by which the right folks get sent to the right place at the right time, and fix the problems that fall within their respective scope, and, “Voila,” the masses are saved from imminent doom.

    So the answer—small group specialization—certainly exists, and is proven to work. The only hang-up lies in applying the theory to the ardent generalists of the voluntary branch of the fire service. This is not necessarily an issue in a large volunteer department chock full of willing and able bodies, but how do we staff a hazmat unit, an ALS response vehicle, a technical rescue branch, a wildland crew, and a handful of competent commanders from the ranks of a suburban, or rural, volunteer department with 12-20 members? We don’t.

    What we CAN do, however, is assign one or two of our members to specialize in one of these disciplines. If one or two members from each adjacent community do the same, before we know it, we have a bona fide, well-trained group of specialists who are able to respond to certain types of emergencies in multiple jurisdictions.

    We must also develop strategies to recruit and retain volunteer members who want to specialize in certain disciplines, or those who have prior training in those skills that our community wants to see in action. The time requirement to equip and train a FF1/Hazmat Tech is much less tedious than that required to equip and train a FF2/Hazmat Tech/Paramedic/Prevention Officer/Farm Equipment Rescue Technician. It is even less tedious to equip and train that same FF1/Hazmat Tech when he is already a member of the Ginormous-and-Leaking Anhydrous Ammonia Tank Emergency Response Bureau at the local egg packaging plant as part of his “real job,” or to equip and train your department’s Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Specialist when she is already a licensed counselor or social worker employed by the local public school system.

    I’ll stop here, as my point has been made, I hope. Yes, the volunteer fire service has its renaissance men who live by Robert Heinlein’s famous “specialization is for insects” mantra. However, it has many, many more folks who want the opportunity to be good at serving their communities while still fulfilling the demands of family and work obligations. The least we can do is give them the tools to be excellent at doing something great for their neighbors.

    (If someone can drum it up, Tony Harwig’s article “Time to Specialize?” in the March 2009 issue of Fire Rescue is an excellent resource for further exploration of the subject matter at hand.)

    • Benjamin says:

      So, in many regards almost like a para-military organization. The military already does much of what you’re talking about – everyone knows how to shoot a rifle but you wouldn’t ask an infantry grunt to detonate a found IED, that’s what EOD is for.

  14. David says:

    I have been in the fire service (business) now for 32 years and I think the world sure would be a lot harder to live in if it were not for having Volunteer Fire Fighters. The below comments I believe help substantiate that point.

    About 87% percent of fire departments registered in the national census are predominantly volunteer (70.6% all volunteer and 16.2% mostly volunteer), according to Alex Furr, director of the USFA National Fire Data Center. Furr said 8.5% of the registered departments are career departments and 4.7% are mostly career departments.

  15. mike carson says:

    Having been a urban career fightfighter for 23 years and a rural voly for the past 15, I just gotta ask, If not us-who? We work full time jobs and when we have any time left over, we vol. I have been everything from the rookie to the chief at my local dept. When you have maybe 6 active members and a budget of maybe $10,000, you do what you can with what you got. We are our own worst enemy, as we never say no. Can you do HazMat, yep. Can you do EMS, yep. Can you do x-y-z, yep. Whenever the public has a problem, we suck it up and go for it. Rural vols have problems that urban or city vols have never thought of. Just an old and cranky FF. mc

    • Jeremiah Rathbun says:

      Mike, you nailed it! We do take everything thrown at us and say “Yes, we will do it. We will serve our community in every way we can.” We do not go beyond our training, but when we learn of a shortfall, we make the arrangements to train for it! The original argument was whether or not vols can keep up with career. I believe the answer is yes! If you have dedicated leadership and motivated firefighters. Thankfully, we do! We seek out new subjects to learn, we practice hard and put it to use when needed. We analyze our mistakes and make sure they don’t occur again. The only difference between vol and career is money. But, we still don’t let that get in our way. We improvise as safely as possible, and do not participate in situations that we are not capable/equipped to handle. If we can’t handle it, we call for mutual aid, then we work on putting ourselves in a position to handle it on our own in the future. I am speaking from a rural standpoint, however, if we were to become an urban community, we would adjust our training, and work on acquiring the necessary tools and equipment to handle the tasks. Volunteers are flexible and willing to go to lengths to “Make it happen”!

      • Anonymous VFD Chief says:

        Mike and Jeremiah,
        You guys have laid out some excellent points! What these “specialist” guys don’t understand is that the nearest HazMat team is an hour’s drive from here, and that doesn’t count mobilization time, and if they’re willing to leave *their* jurisdiction unprotected. This goes for Tech Rescue or any other specialty you can think of, as well.

        I would even go you one further, and say we try to *anticipate* issues we may face, and move toward preparing for them, when and as we can, or at least have some sort of contingency plan for what we *can* do to save the most lives and property if a situation arises.

        Unlike a lot of the paid guys, we know we would have to look our friends, families, and neighbors in the eye and say “We’re sorry, there’s nothing we can do to help you. Wait for the guys to get here from the city in a few hours.”

        You try that sometime. We will, by god, do the best we can with what we have.

  16. Patrick says:

    One thing that a lot of feedback seems to have missed is that this post is about volunteers in urban areas. This is not about a VFD in a 2,000-person town surrounded by corn fields.

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