Game of Thrones – The Politics of the Fire Service

Advice from the NVFC

While volunteers command much of the nations fire service, in highly populated areas they are losing ground to more politically savvy organized labor operations.  We have all heard the saying “Nature Abhors a Vacuum”. This commonly used phrase I feel is aptly applied to the volunteers because they are acutely absent from the political system and the communities they serve. Clearly, volunteers decided long ago that they, out of necessity should avoid the politics of supporting political candidates. Having never been a volunteer I cannot articulate why that strategy was adopted. In the case of Prince George’s County and the surrounding metropolitan area (densely populated jurisdictions) this strategy is a grossly under performing strategy and has meant the death of the once thriving volunteer systems.

Paid employees have been able to project the eventual death of the volunteers and have successfully encouraged citizens to pay for fire and emergency medical protections that is free across the nation. Of course I love the paid service and have benefitted greatly from serving as a paid fire fighter. But I am concerned that the community is losing out on some key benefits of having strong volunteer organizations. First and foremost during disasters and emergencies communities that do not have trained citizens have to wait for life saving services that they can do themselves if they were trained. Whole families are killed because they do not know the value of a working smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, sprinkler systems and other technologies that can keep them safe. Paid fire fighters in this area run an extreme amount of emergencies and calls for service. This area boasts the busiest fire and emergency medical service departments in the County and the world. There is little time to do high quality public education however. Statistics show that citizens die at a higher rate and number in these urban areas than in the more rural areas. Clearly it is because citizens in rural areas participate in their fire and emergency management departments and thus their knowledge base on, what to do in, and how to avoid, emergencies and disasters is higher.

Yes, we are in “the government and we are here to help” is vital to stopping the spread of fire and the cascading effects of disasters and emergencies, however, how sad is it when millions of people in these densely populated areas rely on government to do everything for them when disaster strikes.

Who can forget the citizens of New Orleans crammed in and around the Superdome waiting for the government to help them. Yet everyday in rural areas we see neighbors helping neighbors and rebuilding their community almost immediately after the disasters are over. I contend that the death of a healthy volunteer system leads to more reliance on government and the death of community institutions that teach volunteerism in all aspects of life. Prince George’s County still has the opportunity to save its volunteer corporations. Unlike Pennsylvania where they are just responding to the volunteer crisis in their state, it appears that elected officials are starting to act to save these vital institutions. The cancer presumption bill and volunteer death benefits are huge steps in the right direction for Prince George’s County. Mary Lehman, Councilmember and other Councilmembers on the Public Safety Fiscal Management Committee seem to understand that there is a growing crisis in our volunteer system. Unfortunately, the County is not investing in helping the corporations recruit local youth to the volunteer companies. All the knowledge on how to respond to disasters and emergencies will fade from the minds of the citizens if the County allows the volunteer organizations to die as they have been dying in the past eight years.


It is incredible how the volunteers have allowed themselves to be shut out of the political process which is the life blood of all institutions in any jurisdiction. Now the volunteers are crying about how they are being treated rather than engaging the system that has welcomed their participation for the past hundred years. Clearly since Charter Executives used to set aside sizeable parts of the budget to assist volunteer corporations in the County. The volunteers took the support for granted and were out maneuvered by paid employees since the volunteers left their seat at the table vacant. Now those dollars, once control by volunteers, which reached eleven million per budget year, is in the hands of paid employees. As a direct result more volunteer companies have failed and are failing to get out on calls everyday. To the County’s credit 200 more paid personnel have been added to the Department in the past eight years. However, while the budget of the Fire Department balloons volunteer companies are dying. Well now, we see decreased investment and support for volunteers – dying volunteer companies. More paid personnel (good idea) but less citizen involvement in the community and more reliance on government. Everyday there is not enough ambulances, longer response times thus a lower quality of care for the public. Let’s not even contemplate how citizens will fare in disasters. That will be an article for another day. Not to only highlight the Prince George’s County, the large jurisdictions, Montgomery County, Baltimore City, Washington D.C., Fairfax County and others have long dropped their support for volunteer corporations and exclusively tax their citizens to literal death in order to pay for fire and emergency medical services.

Volunteers need to open their doors to the community and invite the community in. They need to stop whining about how they no longer know how to speak to the community or the next generation and get it done. We put the energy into things we care about and as Americans we have always figured out how to solve our problems. In the end, if you want your volunteer corporation to vanish then keep doing what you are doing volunteers. Keep talking about how hard it is and how no one appreciates you. Stay out of the political fray and let your portion of the budget go to another group. Citizens, keep letting government solve your fire and emergency medical problem. Keep your children from the reward of public service and the character building nature that comes from serving others. Politicians keep neglecting your volunteer companies so you can devote more and more tax dollars to paying for fire and emergency medical services. Words matter as we are finding out in this iteration of federal politics. Like it or not your silence on the growing crisis of failing volunteer fire departments is going to cost all of us a lot of treasure that does not go into educating and preparing the next generation for the future. If you watched the video you will see that volunteers have no idea how to communicate with the next generation. Sad when you think about what that portends for the future of our community.

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New Adventures Abound (Volunteering in the Community)

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New Adventures Abound (Volunteering in the Community)

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In my new life (second time around) as a retiree I get to see life in a whole new way. I consider my new employer (Everyday Life) as an adventure because I see things I didn’t notice before when I was working. I have spent most of my retired time volunteering for the Prince George’s County Police and Morningside Volunteer Fire Department.

As a citizen, with time on my hands, I have learned more about the Constitution of the United States than I ever thought I would. In the work world I focused on the policies and procedures of the local governments that employed me. Most of my time with the Constitution dealt Equal Employment Law. I never thought much about “government intrusion” into our lives because as a representative of the government I saw into the private lives of those I served in the most intimate way possible. I had to touch people (with their consent of course) while providing EMS care, and I regularly entered their homes, places of employment and asked them things about their health information that most people had no access to. Government was good. I loved government and I trusted that the people I served with served with the highest of integrity and ethics.

Being on the other side I now see the intrusiveness of government and the dark side of those who want to take away the property rights and freedoms of citizens in a way that I never saw before. I see the same people I served with think nothing of depriving someone of their inalienable rights and get mad when you point out to them that they don’t have the power to do what they are attempting to do.

During this part of my adventure I am meeting people who are simply awesome. While I proudly served with other government workers and had the opportunity to recognize them for their dedication, hard work, valor and acts of kindness, I have gained a deeper respect for the volunteers and citizens who represent the communities they serve. On the Citizen Advisory Councils I served on I saw people who devote their lives to making sure their community is respected and represented. I got to see two very professional and caring P

olice Chiefs as they met with citizens to ensure their agency was responsive to the needs of those they served. I am truly thankful that I got to see those two Chiefs in a different light. Sure, I worked with many Police Chiefs but seeing them as a citizen, I can say Prince George’s County has had two awesome Chiefs in a row, Chief Mark Magaw (now Public Safety Director) and Chief Hank Stawinsky. Two men who have to make the Constitution of the United States an everyday discussion to every citizen’s understanding. Every citizen should get a chance to hear directly from their police chief, especially these men.

The volunteers I now serve and serve with are awesome young people who know nothing else but a life of service. I am amazed at how they think nothing of going into dangerous situations for free. (I am sorry but I never heard of volunteer fire and EMS personnel when I grew up. I grew up in the District of Columbia and the volunteer service was long gone when I met the first fire fighters in my community). The long lineage of service, buying fire apparatus, tools, equipment and ambulances is something they (volunteers) want to do. Equipping themselves just to have an opportunity to serve. The Prince George’s County Government is taking on new initiatives to make sure these volunteers have up to date health care. Legislation is making its way through the Council processes to become law, hopefully. Seeing the Constitution in action at this stage in my life is very gratifying. I hope everyone can learn to respect the rights of others and the private individual corporations that work everyday to make the place we live, work and play enjoyable.

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Key to becoming Chief – Climbing the ladder – seek out the advice those who made it.


Ask the everyday chief level officer what the Fire Chief’s job is and they can’t tell you. They know it’s a rank or two or three above them but that’s all they know. Most of them have no idea how to prepare for the top spot. Go to any gallery of pictures of the “Chiefs” and you will see a few pictures over many years. Many speculate on how this one or that one got there as they observe the pictures but in the end they know they will never see their own face up there.

It’s not a secret on how to get to the top it’s just hard work and dedication. It has all to do with knowing your craft better than anyone else in the organization. It’s about being one of the best communicators in the service. It’s about those who matter seeing that you are the one. As President Trump fills his cabinet we see some of the same people who have served the Country well for years being given another opportunity to serve at the top of the Agency/Department. They are the best and brightest in the business. Whether Democrat or Republican their peers agree that the nominee is a top-notch professional and a high achievers.

Instead of spending your time in the peanut gallery with those who (secretly) bemoan the fact that they will never amount to anything in the organization or the service, focus on your own career. No one has ever been promoted because they were the most vocal critic or writes the best Facebook post on why the Chief is an idiot. It gets a few laughs but in the end people are taking notes on how foolish is the one who spends their time criticizing others while they themselves achieve nothing. I run into people all the time who wish they had worked harder at promoting up through the ranks. I listen to people who wish their retirement checks were bigger if they had only studied for that next promotion.

Not everyone wants to be Chief, nor can they be. Everyone has their place in the service and can serve just as honorably as any chief level officer. But this article is not for them. This article is for the people who in their heart believe that they can contribute to the service in a manner that only a few can achieve. Keep striving and keep climbing. Seek out those who have held the position and ask them how they got to the top. I interviewed many chief level officers as I rose through the ranks. I learned about the principles and practices of being a successful chief officer. I served among the best and learned their ways. Even today those Chiefs are among the most influential men in the Fire Service.

Consider what President Roosevelt said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

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MWCOG Chairman McDuffie gets it right

“Workers used to follow jobs, but an increasing number of companies are following talent, which is a competitive advantage for our region,” said Kenyan McDuffie, COG Board of Directors Chairman and…

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MWCOG Chairman McDuffie gets it right

“Workers used to follow jobs, but an increasing number of companies are following talent, which is a competitive advantage for our region,” said Kenyan McDuffie, COG Board of Directors Chairman and District of Columbia Councilmember. “Area leaders need to build on this strength by ensuring that more of our residents are prepared for the high-quality jobs that these companies are creating.”

County Executive Baker in his 2035 Plan also points to the richness that residents of the various communities in Prince George’s County bring to the region. One overlooked segment of our society is the value that volunteer fire departments bring to the table. The Morningside Volunteer Fire Department (MVFD), for example, which has been targeted by various people to reduce its effectiveness, is actually thriving because people see that the educational programs and training gets them jobs.  Many members have come from all over the Country to MVFD and received Federal funds for education, hands on training and mentoring and are snapping up jobs in the regional fire & police departments. Unfortunately, local residents are not getting the benefits at the rate of people from Pennsylvania, Florida and the Midwest because the volunteer companies are not valued by the Fire/EMS Department Officials in the County. Various political pressures (that lack good sense) put burdens on volunteer corporations to purposefully diminish them. Citizens are discouraged from volunteering locally and County efforts to recruit residents are minimal at best. For example, students who seek to volunteer for training in Prince George’s County are forbidden to join volunteer companies. (How strange is that?)

The amount of money the Federal Government is pumping into volunteer corporations is staggering. Since the volunteer service makes up about 70% of the workforce in this nation, when it comes to public safety, it is clear the Federal Government understands that a healthy volunteer service is vital to the nation’s readiness. Recently, Pennsylvania has renewed its commitment to volunteerism and funding is being ramped up in that State to strengthen volunteer companies.

“For two centuries we’ve been known as the ‘Federal Capital,’ but the data is now telling us a different story about metropolitan Washington—in the twenty-first century we’re the ‘Human Capital’ region,” said Chuck Bean, COG Executive Director.

Volunteers in Prince George’s County while greatly diminished in recent years are trying every effort to maximize people who join their ranks. Morningside VFD has seen volunteer participation increase greatly since it has become 100% volunteer and the Feds and State governments have rewarded them accordingly with support. Mike Poetker, Volunteer Chief of MVFD, has a great vision for his organization and has expanded his organization’s capability to providing emergency medical services. Due to the increased funding from the Federal Government and increased EMS members, Morningside VFD is seeking to put a second ambulance in service. Most days members have no unit to ride because there are more volunteers than seats to fill so they take turns running calls. The EMS Committee is gaining momentum and has requested a support vehicle from the County to improve EMS Operations. The request has yet to be filled but members are hopeful. EMS services are so strapped that the County has to go on alert everyday because they are short of EMS units. Morningside has a viable solution and hopefully the County will respond favorably to Morningside’s requests. Adding an additional ambulance and support unit makes sense. The ladder truck which the Chief swears will never go in service is also vital to the future of the community fire protection program and job training. Hopefully the future administration will see the current lack of capability in Prince George’s County and approve the additional truck. It makes no sense that the County has no reserve fleet for all unit types and Morningside and other companies are willing to purchase new vehicles worth millions but the County says it doesn’t need the units.

“Area leaders must continue to invest in the creation of quality places—centers of activity and opportunity around our region that will appeal to the future workforce—while also working together to maximize the wealth of talent that is already here,” said Chuck Bean, COG Executive Director. That is exactly what Morningside is hoping will happen with the incoming Chief of PGFD. We at Morningside appreciate the influx of people across the Country that see the richness of paid fire/police departments in the area and their willingness to relocate here to take advantage of the opportunities. We are also reaching out to the community here in Prince George’s County and hope the administration will support Morningside’s initiatives to provide more riding positions so more people can be trained. It will work to the benefit of the community as well as MVFD.


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It’s hard to believe that in 2013 I wrote about the decline of the Prince George’s County Volunteers and how that decline continues today. I guess no one heeded the “Call to Action.” The factors related to the decline are hard to untangle because I do not know which came first, the decline of the Volunteers or the forces of societal neglect of its valuable resources. Maybe its due to the society we live in today that has lost confidence in the volunteer or combination system? Is that the correct assessment? Maybe the schemes of those who benefit from the decline (not the public) have finally lulled an overburdened public to sleep to the need for higher taxes and diminished service to their own demise.

Like the issue of clean drinking water, we will find ourselves wondering in the future how did we allow things to become so unsafe.  Who will be the one to blame for the decline in Public Safety? Who will be the blame for the lack of a progressive public education system which was before offered by volunteer corporations to thousands of people every year in Prince George’s County. Education you cannot get from public institutions no less. No hands on training for citizens exists outside of the private institutions which only offers it to members unless you pay for it. Soon the Federal and State Government will offer more training and education dollars to the citizens of Prince George’s County. Eventually, the County citizens will not have equal access to Federal and State dollars like all other Counties in Maryland. Like the District of Columbia, that has no public institution that can offer to its citizens quality, progressive, advanced education in the Fire Service, Emergency Medical Services or Fire Science, because of the lack of the private institutions previously providing training. Soon Prince George’s County citizens like those in the District will have no chance of getting the jobs in the Fire/EMS Service in their own jurisdiction because elected officials think “paying for such services ensures a higher quality service. ” No one focuses on how all paid services seriously diminishes opportunities for all residents within the jurisdiction to the very jobs their tax dollars support.

Our community leaders and elected officials seem to believe that quality volunteer organizations cannot exist side by side with government services; which have strained budgets resulting in the public being in jeopardy of not being able to get service because the government option is too expensive.

While the rest of the Country’s fire service is 70 percent volunteer, big cities and Counties have opted for the most expensive and least effective service (all paid). Sure this is not a popular subject because it makes those in office ask themselves a basic question, who in their right mind would opt to pay for a service that they can for free? And then when they look in the mirror they know the answer to that question. I get it, we pay more because we equate cost with quality. Besides, who is it that decides we do not need volunteers? Who decides that we should pay more for less? Who says we are not getting quality with a combination system? The same type of people in Michigan that said the water is better if we process it a different way. Those type of people ignore the facts and leave it up to people who do not know their craft. Who fact checks the Fire Service in our community? All the great men elected to President encourage the citizenry to volunteer for the community while 30% of the leaders elected to office in this Country discourage volunteerism for some reason, especially in majority-minority communities that have the highest death rate due to fires. In Maryland, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City have more fire deaths than all the jurisdictions in Maryland combined. (This is why I write about this.) Oh yeah, majority-minority communities in Maryland pay the highest taxes for fire protection to boot. Yes, we hire more fire fighters and die the most in fires. (Brilliant)

Well Prince George’s County dig deep into your extra money to pay more taxes for higher “quality services.” I’m not against higher taxes. I benefit from higher taxes but at least I am honest about it. I think we should pay higher taxes because I am a believer in more government. Like I want clean drinking water and I want someone more qualified than I to make sure we get it. I’m not sure that type of thinking works in the Fire Service though. I am sure it’s the opposite. The more we pay for fire and Emergency Medical Services the less service we get and that is a measurable fact.

No one counts the cost of lack of opportunity for jobs or the diminished preparedness culture because the misconception that paid public servants will handle everything during disasters. Before we let the combination system degrade beyond recovery a public hearing on its decline should be convened. One has to wonder why our elected officials are silent on decline of the combination system in our County? Maybe they are silent on the Fire Service because we are improving in that area? In either case silence is not service. Octavia Butler said, “Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.” I am sure the people of Flint wished that someone had not chosen silence, but they are now all too familiar with politics that we love more than our very selves. The “Politics” surrounding public health and safety is always the best route. (Not). Oh and the Volunteers have been silent. How’s that working for you. Oh that’s right you’ve improved relations in the political arena as promised for your silence. (Not as well.)


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