'Something Needs to Change in the Way We Run Our Volunteer Fire Departments and EMS Squads'

[Editor's note: This blog post was submitted by Capt. Tom Lindtveit in response to "Restocking the Fire Service," a commentary by Editor Jerry Laws in the April 2010 print issue of OH&S.]

I read your editorial on 'Restocking the Fire Service' with interest.

It is good to see this conversation coming out in other venues besides Fire Service publications and the occasional local news articles that show up each time a community realizes (all of a sudden) that they are in danger of losing their local Fire Response capability due to dwindling numbers.

The points you raised were of course true and accurate, however I would like to take the opportunity to mention that there are always other factors involved that do not make it into the public forum where they should be, so that they might be addressed or at the very least become known and understood.

Manufacturing Engineer Tom Lindtveit is a National Pro-Board Certified Fire Service Instructor II, teaching for a local Fire/Rescue Training Center (also volunteer), where he focuses on safety and hazard recognition training.First, the Career and Volunteer Fire Services are not the same entities they were 30 years ago. Even though we say we have "200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress," the truth is that the last 30 years have seen a lot of changes for the Fire service and, in particular, the Volunteer Service. This reflects an effort to increase safety, reduce fatalities and injuries, and improve the response capability and skill level. Expectations too are rising from within the served communities and each time we get "the call," people expect to see something akin to what they are exposed to on TV: a professional operation with all the toys and tricks. Consequently, the scenario that frequently took place in the 1970s where a new member could be accepted into a Department at their monthly meeting and find themselves hanging on the tailboard and going to their first structure fire just a couple of hours later, is now, hopefully, long gone (and we don't ride tailboards anymore). Today almost every Department has probation periods, training requirements before being allowed to respond, physicals, drug tests, and criminal background checks, at a minimum. Every state, county, and Department around the country has different requirements so it is difficult to generalize, but I can speak from my local experience. Entry-level training generally means taking the Firefighter One Course in our state.

This is approximately an 85-hour class spread out over several months and covers the basics of firefighting. Classes in additional disciplines are also strongly recommended, such as Auto Extrication, Firefighter Two, Technical Rescue, HAZMAT Tech, and the list goes on depending on the department and the types of responses they provide. Entry level for an EMT in this state requires about 150 hours of initial training, as well as re-certification every 2-3 years (another 50 hours or so). Most states are similar in this respect. A few Departments require both EMT and Firefighter skills from their personnel. Taking the classes is difficult for most volunteers with the impact on work, family, and leisure time, but just to add another hurdle, these classes are in fact hard to find in many places or require long commutes for the students.

Some counties have waiting lists to enroll in a class. States are cutting budgets, reducing the number of instructors, and reducing training opportunities. Imagine taking the big step to join a Department only to find that it takes 2-3 years to get into a class that fits your schedule. How long can we expect people to wait until they can contribute?

Aside from the difficulties in getting new members, the bigger picture shows us that after all the time a person puts in to become proficient and comfortable, they are often burned out in a few years. Particularly if they move up the ladder and become an officer. The amount of responsibility and additional time requirements placed on officers -- particularly in EMS where there are monthly reporting requirements; ambulance and facility inspections by the Department of Health; new protocols to be rolled out, taught, tested, and documented among the responding members; supplies to be ordered; and all the day-to-day business that can make being a volunteer very time consuming. This is not like any other "community volunteer" organization. There is no "season" like Little League or soccer. We don't get an "off period," and things need to be done in a timely manner to keep equipment in service.

So even if we run a major call at midnight and get back to the station at 4 a.m., we still have to stay and repack hose, fill the SCBA bottles, clean the masks, and get everything ready to go. There is no opportunity to "come back tomorrow" and finish it up. This continuing workload is something that can make members leave after getting to the point that they have gained enough experience to make a difference in their community. Add to that the emotional stress we sometimes endure being up half the night working through some poor soul's tragedy of a lifetime, followed by a quick shower and going into our regular job where we are expected to act and function as if the past six hours never occurred. To quote Pogo: "It ain't easy being us."

In short, getting them into the Service is tough, but do-able. KEEPING them in the Service is the hard part. Without a way to reduce some of the demands on our volunteers, I see no practical way to improve on the retention record. Certainly, Fire Corps and Junior Firefighter programs are a great idea that can help. We are trying a similar approaches in our Department by bringing in non-responding volunteers to help with important tasks where they may have special skills and they can lighten our burden, such as bookkeeping, records maintenance, computer work, grant writing, review boards, supply stocking, and ordering. We also bring in youth members and provide mentorship, training, and support as they grow into the Department. Still, this puts a new burden on the officers to find these folks, bring them in, train them in what is required, and service their individual needs as a volunteer.

For sure something needs to change in the way we run our volunteer Fire Departments and EMS Squads. Although I am certainly not typical of most volunteers, I put in about 12-20 hours a week for the Department covering communications, planning, ordering, solving problems, meetings, and a handful of other things. This does not necessarily include actual responses (which, let's remember, is the real reason I do this). In the last five years, I have accumulated over 950 hours of formal classroom time spread out over 50 some odd classes and various certifications. This does not include weekly drills, meetings, or practice evolutions, nor does it include the sessions I teach. This is certainly not the norm (and anybody who knows me will tell you that I am not normal anyway; in fact, with all due respect to my brothers and sisters in the Service, I would say most Firefighters are not normal -- who would choose to run in when everybody else is running out?), but it does point out that the Service can take an awful lot of a person's time if they allow it.

Communities and lawmakers need to realize that there are only so many demands you can place on volunteers before they start to get busy with other things where they have more of a choice and less stress. Tax credits of a few hundred dollars are nice, but they usually don't address the volunteers who do not own property. In addition, the value of what communities receive from the Fire and EMS Departments far exceeds the small offerings provided by local governments. Just do some quick calculations on what it can cost a volunteer in your town to respond to 100 calls a year. Let's say it's only 4 miles to the fire house (800 miles a year to and from) and they get 18 mpg on their family truck or car. That comes out to $178.00 at $4.00/gallon. That is cash out of their pocket. If they do more calls, their personal outlay goes up.

I'm just using this as an example of one of the little things that can wear on a volunteer that most folks never consider. There are still some small Departments around the country where the members purchase their own PPE (bunker gear) because the Department issues either outdated or incomplete gear. Suppose I told you up front that we really needed your help in our Fire Department, but first you need to put 100 hours into training and lay out a couple of hundred bucks a year for fuel. "Does that appeal to you? Great, sign here. Oh, by the way, did we mention that you might get seriously injured or killed while you are doing this?"

Speaking for myself, I can say that there are few experiences in life that will match the feeling you get when you can put a frightened elderly person at ease, help an injured child, save a home from fire, pull someone out of a wrecked car and provide care that keeps them alive until the next phase of their treatment, or perhaps have a direct hand in saving a life outright. There is nothing like it. But the price we pay to be afforded that opportunity is getting higher and higher.

Posted by Tom Lindtveit on Apr 16, 2010

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