By Billy Goldfeder
The volunteer fire/EMS/rescue service in North America is in a major and measurable crisis. It is not “going to be in a crisis” but it is in a crisis and few genuinely want to fix the problem. When I say fix the problem I mean fix it so when whoever dials 9-1-1 they hear sirens approaching a few minutes later.
You may have seen the headlines last week about another fire where the volunteer fire department response time did not 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 a problem that has been around for a while.
The problem I am talking about is with an un-staffed fire station, fire department or company (where members respond 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 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 and among nature but then have an emergency and expect service a few minutes later. Other than rare occasions your stuff is going to burn up (especially if you do not have residential sprinklers) or whoever had the heart attack will be in serious trouble. That’s just how it generally works with rural living.
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 three minutes later the dispatcher advised that the person was having severe trouble breathing and the tones went out. Then about 10 minutes into the call the dispatcher advised the person was unconscious, and more tones went out. Then it was a non-breather, cardiac arrest patient and tones didn’t matter anymore.
I can also give similar examples for fires with this being one of my sarcastically favorites stories. A call for a building fire was transmitted. The fire company had not turned out, so tones went off again. Eventually about 10 minutes into the call, an engine finally responded with a driver and four 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 to respond to the fire. Do I see 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 actual qualified, trained, and experienced firefighters on the scene. 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. They are 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, must 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 every day 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. Nowhere 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.” 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 organization’s 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 should no longer be required.
For example: Fund Raising. In 2019 where so many volunteer fire departments can barely survive just training and responding it is time to replace the burden of fund-raising to buy fire equipment with a tax. You don’t see the police department fundraising to buy police cars. You don’t see the mayor or city manager fundraising” to buy their desk. You don’t see the sanitation workers fundraising to buy garbage trucks. People don’t join volunteer fire/EMS agencies in 2019 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 where you can reach your own conclusions.
So now what? The bottom line is that volunteers join to help people having a bad day. If that is what you want to do 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 gives the community a false sense that those fire trucks will come roaring out of those bay doors if they need help 24/7/365.
Look at Standards
“We hate standards!” yells the angry crowd. Yeah me too, at least some of them, but others make sense so let’s spend just one minute of your time looking into them. And let’s look at them as if your family, your spouse, partner, loved ones, kids, grandkids etc. are the ones needing 9-1-1 emergency help – and they need it right now.
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 (interior certified) firefighters on the scene in 9 minutes. The question is simple: can you do it or not? You know the answer. It is in your department’s statistics for the past five years.
Now I know we hate standards so let’s 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? It is that simple.
Fire Response: Research shows that 30 years ago, people had about 17 minutes to get out of a house fire. Today it’s down to three to four minutes because newer homes and the furniture inside burn a lot faster. Three to four 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 statistics and your heart know the answer. Is it time to change? Your statistics and heart know that answer as well.
When a department can no longer meet industry standards and community needs, each 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 department’s capabilities are (what you can realistically do and not do) and give your community a choice of determining their level of service.
Changing, or evolving, does not have to mean the death of a volunteer department. It does however mean means a rebirth to stay focused on the original mission that the founders of that agency had in mind; helping people. It may mean adding bunk rooms 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. It may mean all the above along with some automatic mutual aid.
It will mean that your department needs to be honest with the community. Present them 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 legal action 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 should be.
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 plans or system remain the same they did 50 years ago. Back then they would blow the fire whistle and await the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to drop what they were doing and run to the firehouse.
But it’s 2019 and they aren’t coming.