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.