Getting Along In Combination Fire Departments

Jeff Stern offers hints on what can be done to smooth relations between volunteer and career firefighters.


The fire doesn't care. The trauma victim doesn't care. The family of the cardiac arrest patient doesn't care. What don't they care about? Whether you get a paycheck for your service or whether you perform your duties for free. Combination paid and volunteer fire and rescue services have...


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The fire doesn't care. The trauma victim doesn't care. The family of the cardiac arrest patient doesn't care. What don't they care about? Whether you get a paycheck for your service or whether you perform your duties for free.

Combination paid and volunteer fire and rescue services have existed for years. For practical and economic reasons, more communities are turning to combination systems to provide fire and rescue services. There are tremendous advantages to combination systems in the efficient and effective provision of quality service within an affordable budget. There are also disadvantages.

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Photo by Jeff Schielke
Many communities are turning to combination departments to provide fire and rescue services. Here, members of one such department, in Batavia, IL, fight an overnight house fire (the occupants escaped after being awakened by the incessant chirping of their pet ferret).

One disadvantage inherent in combination systems is the conflict that often arises between career and volunteer members. This conflict works against the teamwork necessary to perform our duties in a safe and effective manner. It has frustrated individuals on both sides of the fence, causing departments and the fire service to lose outstanding individuals who become burned out from the often petty fighting that goes on between the paid and volunteer sides.

So what can be done? Do we simply throw up our hands in defeat, or do we find ways to reduce this conflict or eliminate it from our combination services? Here are a few pointers on how the friction can be reduced. It is pretty simple stuff but it always takes one side to make the first step.

Understand the rationale for combination services. It is important that members of combination departments understand the reasons both paid and volunteer members are needed.

In many areas of the country that have been served by all-volunteer departments, volunteers alone simply can't handle the increasing call volume that their communities are facing. Members cannot take the time off from work to respond to the many routine calls and emergency incidents that are occurring daily.

In other cases, demographic changes have separated the areas where volunteers work and live; the volunteer who lives in one town but works in another town simply cannot respond during the daytime. Therefore, career firefighters or rescue workers are needed to cover times when volunteers are not available.

Further, very few communities can afford to maintain sufficient numbers of paid personnel to staff for optimal performance during peak call loads and major emergencies that may occur only several times a year. Volunteers in these departments fill the staffing gaps in these peak load times. They also provide a trained force of personnel ready for major incidents. They are, in effect, a "ready reserve" similar to the military reserve units. The volunteer reserve concept is used in some European countries and may see more use in America as demands on the fire service increase.

Most combination departments are somewhere between the two extremes, often juxtaposing a long tradition of volunteer service with a growing need for career personnel to handle both the routine and specialized fire service tasks that growing suburban communities (and some others) demand. Economic forces often prevent these communities from being able to afford an all-career fire or rescue service. In many cases, an all-career or all-volunteer service can provide only minimum staffing for emergencies. Combination departments can provide increased staffing levels beyond what may be available or affordable in an all-paid or all-volunteer service not just at peak times but all the time.

Volunteers in combination departments also keep the local community directly involved with the fire and rescue service. In this way, volunteers may act to promote a higher level of service provided to the community than would be afforded by a large, centralized department directed from a headquarters located miles away.

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