The Decline and Fall of the Volunteer Fire Service?

Many decades ago, Edward Gibbon wrote a lengthy treatise on the collapse of the Roman Empire. His work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, portrayed the sad tale of how a mighty empire fell from the heights of civilized success. While this was a...


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Many decades ago, Edward Gibbon wrote a lengthy treatise on the collapse of the Roman Empire. His work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, portrayed the sad tale of how a mighty empire fell from the heights of civilized success. While this was a tough series of books to write, Gibbon had the benefit of hindsight and recorded history to guide him along the way on his literary journey.

It was Gibbon's finding that the empire declined because of variety of changes, some internally driven, others forced on it by outside forces. However, the reasons that caught my attention involved the nature of its leaders and the actions of the people being governed. Gibbon spoke of a group of people who lost sight of their role as citizens, with its attendant duties and responsibilities.

My friends, this is tough for me to write. Throughout my years as a volunteer firefighter, I've seen changes that have worked against the ability of volunteer fire departments to survive. It should be noted that there are those who cheer anytime a volunteer fire department falls on hard times. I am not among that throng.

Unlike Gibbon, I am creating a written record of events as they have unfolded during my life and career. I am not writing an epitaph. Rather, I am writing this in an attempt to raise the fire service's awareness of things that are capable of killing us from within. It is my belief that there is still time to strengthen our volunteer fire service and forestall its continuing decline before it launches into downward spiral from which it can never recover.

That is the reason for my doctoral research and that is the motivation behind a great deal of my writing. I do not want to have to write a post mortem of the fire service, such as Gibbon did for the Roman Empire. It is my opinion that we have people within the current generation of leaders who fail to recognize the importance of their role in organizational success.

My experiences indicate to me that people can be driven away from a volunteer fire department by a bad leader. I wanted to study whether my experience had a wider impact. To that end, I asked Firehouse.com to post a question of mine in the website's Fire Poll area:

Have you ever seen a leader of your fire-EMS department drive members away as a result of their leadership style?

The question did not differentiate between career and volunteer agencies, but the size of the negative response surprised me. It also indicated that I was on to something important.

Let me set the record straight from the beginning. I am a strong supporter and encourager of the concept of voluntary community service. There are those who volunteer as Little League and soccer coaches. There are those who work for the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts or the Salvation Army. I have been active in volunteer emergency services since my junior year in high school, dating back to 1964. During the past four decades, I have witnessed a number of changes in our volunteer fire service. Much like the case of the Roman Empire, a number of these changes were driven by external forces. Other changes were of a more subtle internal nature, and in some ways mirrored the changes in society that all of us have seen and felt. Sadly, we did not always respond to these forces.

I have worked to address these issues in my writing and in my lecturing, but I felt that more was needed, that something had to be done to amplify the problem and let us all work toward creating solutions. The outlet for my energy came from the world of my academic endeavors. I went to work to identify those aspects of knowledge and experience that could point me in the direction of creating a set of solutions to our growing volunteer recruiting and retention problems.

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