20 April, 1984
Volunteer services in need of more money, manpower
Guest Opinion: by James Camner
Although there are over 24.000 volunteer fire companies in the United States, many people, including a large number of the citizens these companies protect, do not understand the basic function and operation of this volunteer emergency service.
Of course this in no way affects the quality of the protection, but the information gap has serious implications for the very survival of the volunteer tradition, a noble tradition that goes back to the earliest days of our country’s history.
Legends persist that Ben Franklin organized the first fire company in America, but recent research indicates that it was in Boston in 1679 that the first volunteer fire company was formed. When Franklin did organize a fire company in Philadelphia, he became one of many of America’s most illustrious citizens to be a volunteer firefighter. Another was George Washington and the engine he manned is on display at Alexandria where he fought fires in the 18th century.
It was a simple concept. Citizens living in cities and towns that were vulnerable to fires sweeping away their lives and possessions would band together to protect their communities. This is still the essence of the volunteer fire service.
AT ONE TIME being a member of a volunteer fire company was abolutely necessary if a man was to have any place in society.
The Fireman’s Ball in any community was the biggest social event of the year! Because membership was often limited, rival companies would be formed which vied with each other in being first to the fire or first to extinguish it. When New York and other large cities largely converted to paid companies in the middle of the 19th century, there was some regret at the passing of the volunteer tradition.
Today, many of America’s small cities and towns still enjoy the benefits of having a volunteer fire service. Besides the obvious savings in taxes, neighbors and friends living among us as trained firefighters surely increases our sense of well-being and of working for the good of the community.
The firehouse is almost always a community center, where pancake breakfasts, movies, flea markets, book sales and other events are held, making it an indisposable part of the life of a small town. But as our towns change and grow there is a real danger that we will lose our volunteer fire companies.
Volunteer fire companies face two great struggles. One is the never-ending problem of raising money and the other is a critical shortage of volunteers. The latter problem only serves to compound the financial one, and yet the only alternative to the volunteer company is the enormously costly implementation of a full-time, professional company. Why do our fire companies have these problems?
As a volunteer firefighter, I feel that there is no greater satisfaction to be gained than that of serving the community in the fire company. Yet, where there were once waiting lists, there are now dwindling rolls.
PERHAPS THE REASON is that the people who are moving into the community do not know how badly their help is needed. More than once when going door-to-door on fund drives. I’ve been asked why the fire company solicits money since we’re already being paid by the township. Of course we are not paid and are not asking for money for ourselves, but the new resident who comes to us from the city or suburbs just assumes that municipal taxes already provide the funding.
Unfortunately, the municipal contribution to volunteer fire companies is almost never enough even to enable fire companies to keep their doors open. So there are fund drives, bazaars, Christmas Tree Sales, and anything else the members can think of to raise money.
But the manpower shortage that is reaching crisis proportions in practically every local fire company is the far greater threat to our volunteer emergency services. While the quality of fire protection still remains at a high level, it is a beleaguered few who are providing it and they need more members, fast! Every able-bodied citizen with the time to spare should join either the local fire company or rescue squad. It’s important that we realize that we can’t continue to expect others to do what we should be willing to do for ourselves.
I think we must all face the fact that there has to be a fire department. If there aren’t enough volunteers, our towns will have to pay firefighters. The effect on the tax structure in our area would be catastrophic. It would take three paid firefighters to replace every volunteer, because the volunteer is on duty 24 hours a day, as opposed to paid firefighters who operate in shifts.
Local residents who do not join the fire company or rescue squad are of course cheating themselves. They miss out on one of the most satisfying forms of community service and deny themselves the greatest group of friends to be found anywhere. I urge anyone reading this to consider joining, if you haven’t already. And when your local firefighter or rescue squad member comes to your door, welcome them and give generously. They are your volunteers and need your help.
Opinion Article Writer Credit: James Camner is vice president of the Plainsboro Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1.