When I was hired in 1983 in the Prince George’s County Fire Department before graduating from recruit school I pulled up to the Fire Station to work for the first time. I saw the sign of the front of the Fire Station. It read “Accokeek Volunteer Fire Department.” I had no idea what a volunteer fire fighter was. Due to the danger involved in fighting fires I could not conceive of a person volunteering to do the job I was hired to do. I asked the guys I was working with if people in the station were “volunteers” or if the sign had not been changed for some reason? I had a rude awakening. There were people crazy enough to fight fires for free.
During my career I saw the ranks of the volunteers swell to more than 2000 people. At the end of my career I see those volunteers on the verge of extinction. In the metropolitan area of Washington D.C. volunteers have all but evaporated in many jurisdictions. Most of the reasons for the decline of the volunteers in those jurisdictions are not clear but in my jurisdiction it is clear. The volunteers have forgotten how to ensure their success. Volunteer leaders were powerful and in charge in the early 70s, 80s and 90s. They stuck together and they watched out for each other. Now its every man and company for themselves. In the past if you messed with one company the other companies would rally to their aid. Citizens in the community would get involved and support their volunteers. As the volunteers locked their doors and engaged less with the public the community fire station became a distant structure. Children coming to the station became a liability and community events for those future fire and emergency medical providers were no longer offered. The children and youth of the County were not seen as the lifeblood of the volunteer systems. Volunteers were recruited from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
Volunteer leaders turned their attention away from the public for admiration and sought attention and accolades from the administration. The adoring public’s adoration was not as good and appointments to meaningless positions and titles consumed those who were ambitious. Jealousy and selfish ambition became the agenda. As paid personnel moved in and increased in number, volunteers competed to get more paid staffing and abandoned the tried and true principles of recruitment and retention. As the demographics changed the volunteers perspective changed toward the community. The community went from “us to them.” Now almost half the fire stations have little to no volunteers. Volunteers have been strangled by legislation and funds are being diverted all because volunteers forgot how to preserve their position in a changing society. As a major service provider they do not have a contract protecting their interests even though a similar sized jurisdiction (Montgomery County Volunteers) figured out ten years ago a contract with Montgomery County was needed.
Its easy to blame the “Administration, the Union or the County Fire Chief” but the blame lies squarely on the volunteer leadership. Volunteer organizations have not kept pace with a changing society, shrinking budgets and sound management principles. A few volunteers have begun to recognize that it takes a strong alliance among themselves to revive a proud history to make it relevant for today’s environment. As volunteers struggle to determine if they need another organization to represent them they miss the point. They need to negotiate for resources because they have lost their place in society. The benevolent public now questions the volunteer’s role in the future of the service. Elected officials wonder and debate the role of the volunteer. The volunteer leadership has been stripped of their role in determining their future because they requested a paid representative to speak for them. Volunteers signaled to the administration that paid leadership is better than volunteer leadership. It seems that the Administration agreed and gave the volunteers what they wanted, paid leadership.
As the volunteers watch their role diminish from primary provider to supplemental force they better wake up, smell the coffee and read the writing on the wall. If you can’t negotiate for your survival you will be seeking revival. Why be revived when you can ensure you are not deprived of organizational sustaining resources? The problem of the volunteer are not outside forces. The problem is the lack of capability to fight for your place in society. Only volunteers can decide if they will become obsolete.