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The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has set the example for some of our nations most innovative and beneficial developments in the arena of public safety. In 1736 Benjamin Franklin organized America’s first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia. In 1747 Franklin organized over 200 men for the protection of Pennsylvania, which officially became the Pennsylvania Militia with the passing of the Militia Act in 1755. It is now time for yet another innovate service model to enhance the level of Fire Service protection for the people of Pennsylvania. Establishing a Fire Fighter Reservist Service Model will address some of the major inefficiencies of the current fire service model while preserving and building upon the strong tradition of the volunteer fire service that began over 270 years ago in Philadelphia. The Fire Fighter Reservist Service Model would provide highly trained personnel to respond to catastrophic events as well as daily demands for emergency services across the Commonwealth. It will enhance the level of professional emergency response and could serve as a model for the entire nation to achieve true National Preparedness.
The volunteer fire service is approaching crisis mode yet it continues to save the commonwealth an estimated $6 billion dollars a year. Pennsylvania distributes approximately $150 billion dollars per year to volunteer fire organizations. Franklin would be proud to know his idea has served the nation so well for so long but if he were alive today I imagine he would continue to find ways to improve the way fire service is provided. The Fire Fighter Reservist Service Model would maximize the effectiveness of the volunteer system, ensure minimal standards of response, and increase Pennsylvania’s overall emergency response readiness and national preparedness.
The present volunteer fire service model is inadequate to consistently provide minimal standards of response to daily emergencies let alone catastrophic events. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard 1720 (4.6.1) suggest that at least four fire fighters are needed before interior fire suppression operations are initiated at a working structure fire. The current volunteer fire service model in our state does not require all Fire Department members to be structural fire fighters. The Fire Fighter Reservist Service Model would define a Fire Fighter as someone able to perform all the duties of fire fighting, use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), search and rescue, ventilation, and fire suppression of any property or vehicle involved in a fire or other emergency situation.
Currently there are three basic categories of volunteer fire department members in Pennsylvania, 1) firefighters as described above, 2) Support personnel including junior firefighters, non fire fighter Drivers, and fire police that respond to emergency incidents and perform valuable support tasks other than interior/masked operations, and 3) Social members that do not response to emergency incidents but may perform a myriad of functions form fundraising to administrative positions with in the organization. Assembling four support members at a working incident would not enable the initiation of effective structural fire fighting operations.
On a hot summer morning in 2004, in Penn Township, PA just outside of Harrisburg it took 26 fire companies and millions of dollars of apparatus from three counties to respond to a fire in a two-story wood structure. Qualified fire fighters were not available to respond to this call and by the time the Incident Commander amassed enough fire fighters to gain control of this incident the structure was beyond saving. A State Senate Commission’s report issued in 2004 noted the volunteer fire service in Pennsylvania is at a critical juncture. Several factors are contributing to the decrease of Fire Service volunteers and creating serious and ever increasing challenges to the volunteer fire service system. Some observers warn of a looming public safety crisis.
The current volunteer Fire Service model’s major issues are Recruitment and Retention, Funding and Financial Sustainability, lack of Professional Leadership, Physical Fitness, Training and Certification of Fire Fighters, and availability of qualified Fire Fighters especially during daytime hours.
This is a very dangerous situation that the general public is unaware of. When they call the Fire Department and apparatus arrives with two or three people, the public does not know if any of these responders are Fire Fighters. They look like Fire Fighters and they came on a Fire Truck. The scene described in Penn Township is a common scenario all across the state. Fire Officers encountering a working structure fire often have to call several other departments to amass a sufficient number of Fire Fighters to initiate effective fire fighting operations. A survey conducted in 2001 revealed that 40 percent of fire chiefs who responded, reported that their companies were unable to respond to at least some calls over the past two years due to deficiencies in volunteer turnout.
Many factors are negatively affecting the currant volunteer fire service model. Currant and potential volunteers are struggling with difficult economic issues. Family responsibilities and child care issues are placing an increased demand on parent’s available time. The ever increasing hours of training required to adequately and safely perform the duties of this very hazardous profession all combine to impact recruitment, and retention of volunteers willing to risk everything to serve their communities.
Volunteer fire companies in Pennsylvania are unique entities. They are independent non-profit organizations that provide emergency response services to the public. Pennsylvania statues ultimately places responsibility for public safety with local elected officials. Yet, the volunteer fire companies have no direct connection to local, county, or state governments. As independent organizations most are self funded. Some of these organizations receive limited funding from the municipalities they serve, but most rely on fundraising, ambulance service billing, or state, and federal grants to stay in business.
Some departments spend more time fundraising then answering emergency calls. Fundraising, training, equipment, building and grounds maintenance require thousands of hours of volunteers’ time contributing to volunteer burn out. It is not uncommon for volunteer Fire Fighters to use their vacation time to attend training, so they are better prepare to respond to emergency situations.
In many of these private organizations officers are usually chosen by popular vote of the membership. In some cases non fire fighting personnel and non active life members get to vote on administrative officers and line officers as well. The elected individuals may, or may not be the most qualified volunteers to manage emergency situations and depending on their work schedules may or may not be available when an emergency situation occurs in their respected communities.
The lack of professional organizational leadership and governmental oversight can cause internal power struggles and mismanagement of these organizations, often resulting in personality conflicts and egotistical decision making that drives away member and discourage new recruits. Power can be intoxicating and in some cases personal interest overtake the best interest of the public. Ironically these organizations theoretically exist to serve the best interest of the public, or they should in any case. Some of these egotistical decisions may negatively affect the community’s safety. For example mutual aid may be summoned from several miles away ignoring much closer resources due to personality conflicts between organizations leaders.
Where I am from there are no mandates requiring the use of closest available resources, volunteers to attain certain levels of certification, or physically fitness before performing fire fighting duties. Only recommendations exist at this time. The lack of professional fire service officers leads to poor company management, and decision making that can negatively affect the life safety of the community.
Establishing a Fire Fighter Reservist Organization mirroring National Guard structuring will enable Pennsylvania’s elected officials to provide the most effective emergency response services available, by enhancing the current volunteer service model to its fullest potential. Not all fire department members would be required to be Fire Fighter Reservist, as not all current fire service members are Fire Fighters.
Requiring Fire Fighter Reservist recruits to be at least 18 years of age, residents of Pennsylvania, maintain active membership in a Pennsylvania volunteer or combination Fire Department for a specified term (4,6, or 10 years etc…), pass a physical fitness test and criminal background check, in return for eligibility for tuition assistance for secondary education, health, disability, and life insurance, paid training and active duty time will address many of the issues now plaguing the volunteer fire service. Reservist recruits should receive initial basis training consisting of Essentials of Fire Fighting and Emergency Response, completion of Fire Fighter 1, and Emergency Medical Technician Basic Certifications.
Reservists would be required to report for duty one weekend per month, and two weeks per year. During active duty times reservist should be paid a comparable wage, reservist could continue training becoming efficient in all aspects of fire fighting, search and rescue, hazardous materials incidents response, chemical, biological, and nuclear incident response, and obtain advanced Emergency Medical Technician Certifications. They could also be assigned to communities around the state to ensure qualified Fire Fighter /EMTs are available to provide minimal standards of response for all areas of the state at any given time. In the event of a major catastrophe or terrorist incident reservist could be activated for longer periods as needed. Fire Fighters willingly put their live in danger to serve their fellow citizens on any given emergency call; they should be afforded the same protections in the work place as National Guard troops.
The days of volunteers working in their home community for local employers who are part of the community are long gone. Even with laws in place to protect a volunteer from being terminated for missing, or being late for work because they were serving their community in a fire fighting capacity, employers still find ways to get rid of employees that have attendance issue. Volunteers should not have to choose whether or not to answer an emergency call late at night or in early morning hours because they are worried about possibly missing work the next morning. If they answer the call, and it is a working incident that last several hours, they often either loose a days pay, or have to use sick or vacation time because they chose to serve their community. As part of the reservist system Fire Fighter Reservist could be compensated for that day’s pay at least at their reservist rate.
The need for mergers and consolidation of Pennsylvania volunteer fire companies is still paramount. The responsibility for public safety lies with local elected officials, and it is time to act. If the fire service was managed at the County level providing professional Fire Service Chief Officers, and giving them the authority to determine the amount of physical resource necessary for adequate fire protection for their counties, billions of dollars of state and federal grant money now wasted on duplication of everything from tools to apparatus could be reallocated to the Fire Fighter Reservist program. In areas like Allegheny County which has more volunteer fire companies than any other county in Pennsylvania there is so much excess equipment that apparatus, tools, gear, facilities, and land could be sold, and the revenue used toward officers salaries.
Active duty Fire Fighter Reservist could be assigned to stations around the counties to ensure minimal standards of response during daytime hours. In the event of a working incident, disaster, terrorist incident, or other catastrophic event Fire Fighter Reservist could be activated on a county by county basis as needed. Actual Fire Fighter /EMTs could leave work to respond to the needs of the community without fear of loosing their jobs, avoiding situations like occurred in Penn Township in 2004. An Incident Commander would be able to request Fire Fighters from the county dispatch center rather than fire companies and apparatus staffed by support members. By partnering with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) to assure training requirements and professional certifications Fire Fighter Reservist could be activated to assist smaller career departments on multiple alarm incidents, or in cases of mass Line of Duty Deaths (LODD) like occurred in New York as a result of the Terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Reservist could fill the vacancies until the civil service process was able to return the department to a full compliment of career Fire Fighters.
The Fire Fighter Reservist service model will contribute to Pennsylvania’s overall emergency response readiness, and set an example for true National Homeland Security Preparedness.