This post is in response to Patrick’s question (and answer) of August 31st.
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.)