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.