Managing the Age-Old Volunteer vs. Career Firehouse Rivalry

The relationship between volunteer firefighters and their career counterparts is both long-lived and often contentious. At times, internal tensions between professionals and volunteers (both within and across departments) can become serious disagreements. Discussions of the rift routinely devolve into arguments on industry forums, with firefighters on both sides of the divide engaging in verbal combat. Meanwhile, publications like Fire Chief suggest strategies local leadership can take to amend common sources of discontent between the two.

Arguably, some abrasion between the two is helpful. Competition is a powerful motivator, pushing people to work harder on physical training and deriving improved performance from teams of employees. Harnessed properly, leaders could ostensibly evoke a good-natured rivalry to push their respective teams, fostering and capitalizing upon a sense of mutual respect in the process.

However, such rivalries often lack the friendliness and respect needed to bear utility. Though the vast majority of towns in these situations will not suffer the embarrassment of teams fighting in the yards of burning homes, failure to produce a timely, appropriate response to such relationships can add difficulty and danger to a job that already offers plenty of both. Poor communication on the fire grounds and ineffective information sharing, for instance, can be both symptom and cause of dysfunction among firefighting teams [PDF], exposing citizens and firefighters alike to unnecessary risk.

Internal tensions between volunteer firefighters and their career counterparts can become serious.

For organizations facing some measure of intra-service animosity, then, the best possible way to keep a rift from growing to unhealthy levels is to head it off before it begins. If this is impossible, accepting the problem for what it is and considering what might be done about it in realistic terms is a logical first step. In either event, strategies that address the complaints individual sides may have about one another—many of them centering on training—is critical.

A brief history of volunteer, career firefighting

In the U.S., the history of volunteer firefighting goes back to colonial America. The first organized fire services appeared in the mid-1600s, when governor-appointed marshals inspected chimneys and fined any owners found in violation of early fire code, per research from Firefighter Nation. Besides presenting an interesting bit of history, this underscores the fire service’s integral role as a preventative service from its earliest days—it was not until a few years later that teams roamed the streets and used large rattles to round up bucket brigades.

The history of career firefighting is more complex. Paid firefighters have also existed in some capacity since the colonial days, and insurance companies offered professional services to customers (and customers only) in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  However, the first fully professional municipal department did not exist until around 1853, in Cincinnati. At a high level, motivations to form professional departments in the mid-1800s largely mirror the reasons cities form and maintain them today: larger workloads, added responsibility, rigorous training requirements, and a lack of available volunteers.

70% of U.S firefighters are volunteer and 67% of departments are all-volunteer.

Today, a network of career and volunteer firehouses keep America covered. While 70 percent of all U.S. firefighters are volunteers, and while approximately 67 percent of fire departments in a recent National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) report are registered as all-volunteer, distribution and demand mean that all-career stations cover 49 percent of U.S. residents. Rural areas typically staff volunteer houses, while larger cities that have the available funds, technological resources, and larger labor pools cultivate stations comprised entirely of paid professionals.

Training’s role in perception, performance of volunteer firefighters

These numbers are noteworthy because of a common notion in the career vs volunteer debate: that an all-volunteer station is a last resort or only option. While there are undeniable advantages to having full-time paid staff (all-hours availability; mandatory training; higher accountability for firefighters who depend on the role for a paycheck), this reasoning does a tremendous disservice to volunteers, who often undergo immense personal sacrifice to keep their communities safe. Per the same NFPA report, more than 40 percent of volunteers have over a decade of experience, a testament to the dedication of volunteers.

More than 40% of volunteer firefighters have over a decade of experience.

In some states, lowered training requirements for volunteers may further this perception. In some states—Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, for instance—state law does not require volunteers to attain any set level of training, though individual municipalities and departments may still set their own standards. In others, volunteers may be held to the same standards as full-time professionals, while others may require NFPA certification or place other requirements altogether. In states with relaxed standards, firehouses may be more likely to draw a mix of career and volunteer personnel.

As referenced above, many states’ volunteer training regimens cut a sharp contrast to career houses, where consistent availability and a singular focus on firefighting work ensure professionals get the training they need. Whatever laws a state puts in place, training represents a variety of challenges for departments utilizing volunteer units. Regions that put the same requirements on career and volunteer personnel, for instance, effectively ask volunteer staff to put their lives and careers on hold for an extended period to undergo recruit training, which can have a significant impact on recruitment and retention. Meanwhile, states or departments with relaxed training standards can have trouble getting volunteers to show up for training events, since volunteers have full-time jobs, families, and other trappings of a busy life outside their volunteer work.

Departments with relaxed training standards can have trouble getting volunteer firefighters to show up for training events.

Though some personnel-strapped volunteer departments may be willing to ignore this behavior to keep roster numbers up, others, such as a department in Hauser, Oregon, have instated policies that require volunteers to attend to keep their post. In that city, volunteers that miss more than three scheduled training sessions cannot serve.

If lax standards are a point of derision from professional firefighters, their potential implications are another. While little research into the performance differences between volunteers and career firefighters is immediately apparent, training is undoubtedly a critical aspect of keeping personnel safe. Filtering by volunteer deaths on FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration site, for instance, shows Pennsylvania recorded 11.5 percent of all U.S. volunteer firefighter deaths in the last decade, though that figure includes direct causes such as burns as well as secondary factors such as on-scene cardiac arrest. These numbers also fail to reflect the number of volunteers in Pennsylvania, a state with a large rural makeup and corresponding mix of volunteer and career stations.

Onlookers using other figures, such as statistics showing volunteers routinely suffer more on-the-job fatalities than professionals do, fail to account for the comparative imbalance. Since there are more than twice as many volunteers as compared to professional firefighters in the U.S., in other words, the statistics are inherently skewed when examined in this light.

Volunteer firefighters—whose population is two times their career counterparts—suffer more on-the-job fatalities.

Overcoming Career-Volunteer Rivalry

The “last resort” line of thinking and assumption that volunteers are less worthy of the title due to differing standards cuts both ways. Where career firefighters may compare their experience to the average volunteers and point to figures like slower response time—often without considering the extra commitments volunteers make in service to their departments—as a sign of less skill, volunteers often feel the derision in different ways. For instance, a sense of being looked down on by professionals, some of whom openly refer to volunteers they share a station with as “scabs.”  In all, the tension can result in serious consequences, such as a standing feud that ignited when professional assets at a scene refused to take orders from a volunteer captain and were subsequently transferred for insubordination.

This all leads to a question: what is leadership to do when a broiling feud threatens a station or service’s functionality? Realistically, even the most skilled leader will have trouble eliminating a rivalry, given the fraternal nature of fire service and the insular attitudes present within the industry. Instead, perhaps the best way of avoiding or stopping unhealthy competition is to address the unfair complaints that carry in them a kernel of truth.

The best way to stop unhealthy rifts between volunteer-career firefighters is to address unfair complaints that have a kernel truth.

In a time where community volunteerism rates have shown a downward trend year-over-year, finding and retaining volunteers for a notably demanding role is hard enough. Enacting measures that screen so-called “glory chasers” may be impossible, given the strain an understaffed firehouse puts on the roster. Moreover, with the extremely small percentage of all volunteers these types represent, these measures may dissuade or prevent qualified, worthwhile volunteers from making ranks. This would be do an inestimable disservice to the community and to potential volunteers themselves, the majority of whom are willing to put their health and even lives on the line to protect their communities.

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the volunteer-career rivalry is so deep that, even with an endless supply of qualified volunteers, some elements within the station would likely manufacture reasons to dislike others. The current state of volunteer-professional affairs certainly suggests this given the immediate dislike professionals often exhibit towards highly skilled volunteers with whom they share a firehouse.

On the other hand, training may represent a feasible way to address several points of disagreement at once. In areas where the law does not hold volunteers to the same standards, enforcing rules that reward attendance and harshly discourage absenteeism should reasonably test the dedication of available volunteers—if the fact that they are risking their lives for little to no recompense does not make that obvious enough already.

Enforcing rules that reward training attendance and harshly discouraging absenteeism tests volunteer firefighter dedication.

Of course, no station can build a training regimen that satisfies every possible volunteer schedule. Considering the cost of some training programs [PDF], simply being able to hold a single course on a given topic might be a major accomplishment. Leadership, however, can take measures to plan training as far in advance as possible, giving volunteers adequate time to plan. They may also wish to offer make-up dates, where available, for situations where life legitimately gets in the way of a volunteer’s ability to train.

As a final bit of advice, stakeholders who do not hold joint volunteer-career training sessions may wish to consider it, possibly with professionals imparting advice and best practices to volunteers. If familiarity breeds contempt, it may do the exact opposite in a shared training environment, shaping the notions volunteers and professionals carry in positive ways. Career firefighters get to assume an educator role, handing down knowledge to a group of people they feel need it, while volunteers get a chance to interact, engage, and learn from professionals, potentially increasing confidence their own service.

The value of these relatively simple moves goes beyond interdepartmental or intra-service goodwill. At the core, a better-trained force is a force better equipped to handle unforeseen challenges in the field, reason alone to introduce measures that place a higher value on training.

Posted on Jun 20, 2018