You may have noticed that in all of the hoopla over volunteerism at the President's Summit on America's Future, not one speaker or media story ever mentioned the volunteer fire service. It seemed especially odd, since firefighters probably are the nation's largest and oldest volunteer group, and the first volunteer fire company was organized 262 years ago by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia site of the Summit meeting. Unfortunately, this bit of history went unnoticed by the news media, conference leaders and the 2,000 delegates who took part.
Representatives of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) were among the delegates but getting them invited was not easy. Bruce Beard-more, the NVFC's government affairs specialist, applied for the volunteer fire-rescue service to be included but there was no response to his letters and phone calls, until someone finally called back to say that firefighters "did not meet the criteria."
The rebuff came up at the NVFC's annual meeting in King of Prussia, PA, and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), a former volunteer fire chief, expressed his dismay. Or, to be more accurate, he went through the ceiling at the idea that firefighters were being excluded from a national conference on volunteerism. Congressman Weldon quickly and forcefully made his views known to a high-ranking administration official. At the same time, Arthur Glatfelter, chairman of VFIS Inc., wrote a personal letter to President Clinton, pointing out the oversight.
A few days later, the NVFC suddenly received a request to submit a proposal that fit in with the conference theme of increasing the number of volunteers engaged in helping young people who are in trouble. Each organization was required to make a specific commitment aimed at solving the youth crisis and most were volunteer groups working on problems like drug addiction, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, etc.
That seems far removed from firefighting and emergency medical response but the NVFC did have a logical proposal to make. It pledged a renewed effort to increase the number of volunteers by recruiting young people through high school fire cadet programs and Boy Scout Explorer posts both things the volunteer fire service has been doing for many years. It established a new goal to have 10,000 fire departments sponsoring these programs and to increase the number of volunteer firefighters from 840,000 to 1 million by the year 2000. That seemed to meet the criteria; Beardmore and NVFC Chairman Fred Allinson were invited to attend.
In Philadelphia, the delegates heard General Colin Powell, the conference chairman, President Clinton and three former presidents praise the spirit of volunteerism and what it can do for America's future by helping children. Many worthy individuals and groups were singled out for attention but there was no mention of the fire-rescue service. In smaller sessions, the other delegates ex-pressed some curiosity about volunteer firefighters but didn't know much about them, what they did or why they were there.
Allinson and Beard explained the history and traditions of the volunteer fire service and the role it plays today in protecting lives and property in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas. They emphasized the importance of bringing young people into the ranks and the difficulties in recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel. They exchanged ideas with other groups having similar problems and Beardmore reports: "It was hard to see any new ideas that we haven't tried."
They also met with Boy Scout leaders to discuss expansion of the Explorer program, which has had some success in getting young people interested in both the volunteer and career fire service. At one point, Allinson had a brief encounter with Colin Powell and told him what the firefighters were doing. "If anyone can get the job done, it's the firefighters," Powell replied. With that reaction from the general himself, it caused Allinson to wonder why "we practically had to beg to be included."
Conference officials insist that there was no intention to snub the volunteer firefighters; the only question was whether they met the criteria. Stuart Shapiro, chief executive officer of the President's Summit, points out that the conference "was not about general volunteering ... it focused on solving the crisis of American youth." And, it's clear that the emphasis was on the big cities, where volunteer fire department don't exist. So, it's understandable why the conference organizers might have been puzzled by the NVFC's desire to participate.
But I do find it hard to understand why none of the speakers cited the fire-rescue service as an example of volunteerism at its best. When it comes to dedication and community service, no group can surpass this country's volunteer firefighters. There is no other volunteer activity that requires a person to put his or her life on the line and volunteer firefighters have been doing it for almost three centuries.
However, the NVFC reports that the number of volunteer firefighters has been declining at an annual rate of 1 to 2 percent. The goals presented at the Philadelphia conference seem very ambitious and it's difficult to see how a net gain of 160,000 volunteer firefighters can be achieved in less than three years, especially when you factor in the attrition rate. But it's a good idea to have a goal and if they're only half-way successful in reaching it, the fire-rescue service will have benefitted from the President's Summit on America's Future.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.