Career & Volunteer Firefighters: Toward A Common Ground

A recent column on the volunteer fire service and its efforts to be included in the President's Summit on America's Future (Firehouse, June 1997) has brought several interesting letters from our readers. As usual, some agreed and some disagreed with my viewpoint, but all expressed ideas that are worthy of consideration — except one that deserves some serious debunking.

The strangest and most disturbing idea came from a reader who suspects there may have been a conspiracy on the part of career firefighters to prevent the volunteer fire service from being represented at the conference. There is not a shred of evidence to support this theory. I interviewed the people who organized the conference and believe it was an honest oversight when they failed to include volunteer firefighters from the very start. As they explained it, the conference was focused on solving the problem of American youth, with emphasis on the inner cities where there are no volunteer fire companies.

The conference was not about volunteerism per se. A wide range of projects were cited as ways of solving specific problems through volunteer efforts. Once the National Volunteer Fire Council came up with a proposal that fit the conference theme recruiting more young people to join the fire-rescue service an invitation was extended. The initial rebuff had nothing to do with any pressure from career firefighters or their union. It never happened.

However, the notion that it may have happened reveals the distrust and paranoia that exists among some elements of the career and volunteer fire services, and that is something to worry about. Based on my own experiences, I think it's only a small minority on both sides, but they are capable of stirring up a lot of trouble and frequently create problems where none exist. The vast majority of career and volunteer firefighters treat each other with respect and understand that each has a role to play. It all depends upon a fire department's workload, resources and the ability to deliver the service that's needed.

Over a period of 40 years, I served on companies that were all-volunteer, career and volunteer combined and, for 16 years, I was the only volunteer on an all-career company. All were busy companies and people were judged by how they did their jobs on the fireground. Back in the firehouse, we worked out whatever differences we had by discussing problems among ourselves. No one hesitated to express an opinion, but loudmouths and troublemakers were not welcome and never heeded.

I learned that a lot of tension can be eased if people are willing to talk to each other. But there has to be some understanding and respect for the other side's viewpoint and a willingness to make reasonable compromises in order to resolve conflicts. The trouble in recent years has been that a few agitators who are always looking for a conspiracy or an issue to exploit have become the tails that wag the dogs. At times, the fire-rescue service has been stampeded into useless and divisive fights in which damage was done to the image of all firefighters.

Whenever a fire department's petty internal squabbles break into the news media, the public starts to wonder if some kind of mysterious brain fever is sweeping through the firehouses. There are serious problems that should be brought to the community's attention because they affect the level of fire protection and emergency medical service. Some cannot be solved without support from an informed public that is willing to put pressure on elected officials to take proper action. But the chances of winning that support are diminished when the community is treated to the spectacle of career and volunteer firefighters engaging in a public fight over a minor dispute that no one outside the fire department has any reason to care about.

It's time for all of us to start ignoring the hotheads, whether career or volunteer. This isn't to say there aren't some serious differences between the two branches; there are, and some are very difficult to resolve. But we should follow the example being set by the leaders of the national fire organizations, who have come to realize that they can sharply disagree on some major issues and still work together to solve most other problems. No one has given up any power or independence, but a genuine effort has been made to find the common ground that enables them to cooperate for the benefit of all. The end result has been a series of achievements that wouldn't have been possible without teamwork.

There was an example of that spirit at last April's dinner for the Congressional Fire Services Institute. The International Association of Fire Fighters put up $10,000 to start a relief fund to assist firefighters in the Grand Forks, ND, region whose homes had been damaged by floods while they were out protecting their citizens. The International Association of Fire Chiefs immediately matched the union's money and the Rev. Pierce Damewood, chaplain of the Maryland State Fireman's Association, challenged the 1,700 people attending the dinner to add to their contributions. A fire helmet quickly filled with $7,500 in cash and that amount was matched by VFIS Inc., which insures volunteer fire departments.

Within minutes, $35,000 was raised for the firefighters of the Grand Forks region and no one seemed to care if it came from the career or volunteer ranks. All they knew was that fellow firefighters needed help and everyone responded which is exactly as it should be.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.