The Volunteer Fire Rescue Gamble

Dear Nozzlehead,

I am a five-year volunteer firefighter in the Northeast, not far from New York City. I belong to a volunteer fire department (VFD) that has paid “house men” who handle cleaning, maintenance, and dispatching but are not classified as fire or EMT responders. Our district covers 4.5 square miles with a population of about 40,000. We have a highway and a mix of residential, commercial, and light industry. We are dispatched about 1,800 times annually with a $3 million tax-based budget - but that doesn’t mean we actually respond. That is my frustration: We quite literally may or may not get a crew on the road for a fire or emergency medical services (EMS) call. There are times where our tones are activated and activated and eventually we may get a crew for the run or we go mutual aid, whereas our neighboring fire department goes through the same routine. It is not unusual for us to take 10, 15, or even 20 minutes to get the right vehicle (engine, rescue, or ambulance) with the right crew (adequate qualified personnel) to an emergency call.

I have raised the issue to some of our leaders as well as some of my peers, and they look at me like I have two heads. They remind me that, “We are just volunteers.” It blows me away. These are the same people who find time for nonresponse fire department social activities but do their minimum when responding; many times, they respond “slowly” to get their length of service award program retirement points vs. even trying to make the run. They have no problem getting the fire department jackets, shirts, food, tax break, and other benefits, but they fail to genuinely respond. When I talk to the chiefs, they bring it up at meetings, but they too (the chiefs!) fail to get out of bed for a call. One of our chiefs scolded us to respond more and one of our members reminded him that he himself (that chief) hadn’t been active either - that is, until he got elected as a chief.

I always thought that the public would care, but honestly no one who matters really cares, and the public seems to be oblivious. Quite frankly, I am getting tired of responding to the firehouse with one or two others and being unable to respond because of no staffing or no driver.

I am writing for your thoughts on this very frustrating problem and to see what we can do about it before something really bad happens.

-- Lonely in Quarters

Dear Lonely,

The volunteer fire/EMS/rescue service in North America (as we know it) is in a crisis. It’s not “gonna be in a crisis,” it IS in a crisis, and you are correct, few want to genuinely fix the problem. Now, when I say fix the problem, I mean fix it so when whoever dials 911, they hear apparatus sirens moments later.

Before we go any further, I want to clarify that I am going to narrow my response with focus on the area that you described - a suburban, populated area. While we could cover areas other than that, we don’t have the time right now. However, let me say this: If someone decides (for example) to live in a rural area, he 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 (check online for AEDs) is in real, real trouble. That’s just how it generally works with rural living.

Your department and the described problem are far from unique. I travel pretty frequently and always have my scanner on, and in so many cases like you described I hear tones ... and then tones ... and then tones ... and the response is a crapshoot.

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. And then about 10 minutes into the run, they advised the person was unconscious, and more tones went out. And then it was a nonbreather 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 four firefighters. What happened at the fire is irrelevant. The issue here is that the driver was 70 years old and the crew was comprised of high school firefighters, age 17, who left school for the run. Any problem with that? ABSOLUTELY! That is NOT a fire department response by anyone’s calculations!

(Say this in a high-pitched voice) “But Nozzlehead, they were certified, and he was their only driver!” 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 to BE the firefighters.

“But Nozzlehead, in our state, that is a perfectly legal fire crew!” Well, then, while your state politicians decide what statues to keep up and which to tear down, tell them to wake the hell up and change the law because THEY ARE WRONG.

Do the math: 70+17+17+17+17= a veteran firefighter (who, at age 70, SHOULD NOT have to be relied on 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 inhouse duty crews, or phone apps such as IamResponding and Active911), so many more cannot ensure a response. To be clear, those in charge - such as elected officials, fire commissioners, boards of directors, and 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 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.”

Let’s look up the word VOLUNTEER: 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 on 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 follow:

  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 are ridiculous and should no longer be required - for example, fundraising. In 2017, where so many VFDs can barely survive just training and responding, it is time for the burden of “fundraising” 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 his desk, or the sanitation workers fundraising to buy garbage trucks. People don’t join volunteer fire/EMS agencies in 2017 to raise money so they can 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?” There are some great articles on that. You can reach your own conclusions.


The bottom line is that volunteers join up 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 provides 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 … (insert car brake screech and crash noise). (Angry crowd yells) “WE HATE STANDARDS.” Yeah, me too, at least some of them, but others make sense, so let’s spend just one minute of your short-attention span time considering them. And let’s look at them as if your family (spouse, partner, loved ones, kids, grandkids, etc.) are the ones needing 911 emergency help and they need it right now. Your loved ones.

According to the National Fire Protection Association standards for volunteer department response:

  • In urban demand zones (more than 1,000 people per square mile), the minimum response staffing is 15 personnel, arriving at the scene within nine minutes, for 90 percent of such calls.
  • In suburban demand zones (500-1,000 people per square mile), the minimum response staffing is 10 personnel, arriving at the scene within 10 minutes, for 80 percent of such calls.
  • In rural demand zones (less than 500 people per square mile), the minimum response staffing is six personnel, arriving within 14 minutes, for 80 percent of such calls.

So, in this case, your department falls into the urban demand zone, and that means 90 percent of the time (day, night, etc.) you (which may include automatic mutual aid, etc.) are expected to have 15 fully qualified fire folks on the scene in nine minutes. And the question is simple: Can you do it or not? You know the answer; it’s in the stats 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 nine minutes acceptable to you? Well hot damn ... 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 or four minutes, because newer homes and the furniture inside burn a lot faster.

EMS RESPONSE: Cardiac arrest: Eight minutes from event. Chocking? Bleeding? You know the answers better than me.

So, can your volunteer department do the above for those 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, 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 department’s capabilities are (what your department can realistically do - and not do) and give the community a choice in determining their level of service.

Changing does NOT have to mean the “death” of a volunteer department; however, it does mean a rebirth 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 bunkrooms and requiring members to pull a shift to ensure rapid response. It may mean paying those members for their time. It may mean hiring people. It may mean consolidation, collaboration, or mergers. 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.

While it can be a factor, attorneys (or the threat and worry of them) 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 of 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.

Current Issue

October 2017
Volume 12, Issue 10