Hiawatha Fire Chief Mike Nesslage discusses the volunteer fire service in this guest post:
I don’t want to comment on the particulars of the case, as the testimony is there. What I can tell you is that in general, the attitude of the public toward volunteer firefighters is changing. It’s going to take some good leadership on the part of legislators to help protect us, on the part of department leaders to create an atmosphere where we can help our volunteers out, and the community as a whole to put percent of their support behind their volunteer firefighters. If not…then we’ll see the volunteer fire service vanish.
We responded to a rather serious medical call the other morning at a condominium complex with limited parking. I had to block a parking space with my marked, city owned vehicle. The young lady who I blocked in came and found us, and told us that we had to move because we were blocking her and she couldn’t get to work. We were taking care of her neighbor, who was having a true medical emergency, and her only thought seem to be that “we were blocking her in.” I got out of bed, like the other five volunteers on the call, to help this guy out and she is worried about being a few minutes late to work?
Today, most of my daytime firefighters are unemployed, students, or guys that work late night. It’s rare that people leave work for fires, and the ones that do have told me they’d rather I not draw attention to which companies they work for. While their supervisors may support their volunteerism, corporate may not. And in the cases of those few self employed individual’s that volunteer, they tell me their clients are less tolerant of their absences due to fire calls. In the old days, it was OK if the auto parts guy was gone a few hours putting out Farmer Johnson’s field fire or Mrs. Smith’s kitchen fire. Now society seems to view it as a distraction.
It’s getting hard for the fire service to recruit volunteers. I have seen articles and know first hand that the volunteer fire service is dying. While Hiawatha is blessed with a waiting list of volunteers, most departments aren’t. Right here in east central Iowa, volunteer fire departments and ambulance services are struggling with recruiting enough people to staff their department 24/7.
I don’t think it’s a lack of caring. I would guess that volunteerism in general is on the rise. It seems like every person I know volunteers somewhere. Granted, I attend a mission oriented church and am chief of a mostly volunteer department, but at almost every juncture you can observe volunteers in action. Volunteer sports coaches, tutors, school volunteers, shelters, eco awareness, and general just pitching in is common.
So why aren’t more people stepping forward to fight fires and take care of sick people?
There was a time when a new recruit jumped on the back of a fire engine, went to the fire, and participated in “on the job training”. No lengthy training, no OSHA requirements for stuff. “Just do it“ kid! Today, my last batch of rookies endured nearly 100 hours of orientation. They went though pre-employment physicals, background checks, and OSHA required respirator fittings. Not to mention spending nearly every Saturday for weeks at the station, learning how to be a firefighter.
Compare that with my non firefighting friends. They can go volunteer at any charitable organization with little up-front training. They can schedule their time to volunteer at their convenience. They set aside their four hours a week of doing good, then go on about their life. They plan their volunteer activities around their life.