People probably do not know that the vast majority of firefighting services across the nation are performed by volunteers. From the time of the first fire department was created by Benjamin Franklin until more recent times volunteers have been able to handle this burden without any paid support. Year after year between call volume increasing and staffing shortfalls in the fire departments create many problems that volunteers simply cannot keep up with the demand for their services.
I am the Fire Chief of my home town fire department, the North Beach Volunteer Fire department located in Calvert County Maryland. Our county is the last 100% Volunteer Fire Service in the State of Maryland, our services include 7 fire departments, 1 Advance Life Support Department, and a Dive Team. Although being the last all volunteer county is the state This something we are very proud of; the department Fire Chiefs have all come to realize the need for paid supplemental staffing to be able to ensure the safety of the citizens in our response areas.
Though there are many independent reasons why different volunteer departments are failing, there are some general reasons that affect all departments equally. The first reason is in general, most people don’t want to work for free, especially where you have a good chance to get hurt or killed. In my department we saw a huge drop off of member participation when the economy took a dive around 2008. My members were faced with a choice, work overtime or work more than one job to provide for their families or possibly lose their home. Obviously people went to work instead of staff the department which is understandable, but when citizens call 911 they expect someone to come.
Another reason I believe affects fire departments is the abuse of the 911 system and the dependence of the emergency room as a primary health care provider. Besides volunteering at my home department, I also work as a firefighter in the District of Columbia and between the two departments, I have many stories of what people call 911 for and when I share stories with people they tend not to believe them. Unfortunately, people call 911 more often than not when that service and the services of the ER is not needed when they should be making appointments with their primary care doctors. Most people seem to want a solution to their problem immediately and almost never take the additional steps to make sure their problem is fixed in the long term.
Though I have many stories and there are endless reasons why volunteer fire departments have problems keeping up with the demand of responding on calls, the bottom line is when citizens call 911 they expect someone to show up. The flip side of this is, citizens need to be prepared and willing to pay for the supplemental staffing. When people hear the word volunteer, they immediately think “they don’t get paid” which is true but it also means citizens don’t pay the extra taxes to pay for these services. So when more and more departments need help of paid staffers the citizens need to be prepared to do their part in paying for those services which for most places means taxes being raised.