Imagine awakening in the middle of the night to find your loved one experiencing severe chest pain. You call 9-1-1 knowing you need help fast. Imagine the agony of waiting and waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Delay. No one comes. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. Longer. Now imagine days later finding out that an all-volunteer group, short on staff, mans the local rescue. And then you learn that your neighbor is an EMT, but she works for another town, preferring not to work in your hometown.
You wonder why. Why the delay in response, when minutes and even seconds make the difference between life and death? Why does your neighbor prefer to work away, rather than her hometown? Why is your rescue department staffed by on-call volunteers rather than having full-time staff ready, round the clock?
This scenario sounds far fetched. Doesn’t it? This clearly cannot be the case in your town. Aren’t there fire and rescue personnel in each of those fire stations, waiting for a call? If you live in a small town in Maine, those facilities are generally empty.
The all volunteer fire and rescue is a way of life in many communities. Neighbors helping neighbors. Generation after generation of primarily men (this is slowly changing) volunteering—working regular full time jobs in the community, but responding to fire and rescue calls whenever it happens. But times have changed. More and more people are not volunteering. More people now work outside their communities. Time-consuming state regulations requiring long hours of training and certifications, personal and family commitments, and a detachment from a sense of community have all contributed to a steady decline in volunteerism. And as new recruits decline and existing, long service members age, many departments find themselves desperately seeking ways to staff their operations. All of this when the demand for rescue ambulance calls is increasing.
These on-call volunteers receive minimal pay for the hours they work, are required to attend countless hours of training, and are expected to respond to calls that could occur any day, at any time. When you’re snug in bed at 2 AM on a snowy, cold February morning, you may be called to a fire or rescue call. Why would you respond? What would motivate you? Three things, primarily: a belief in what you’re doing, a love of their community and a strong sense of loyalty to your chief and “brothers and sisters.”
The volunteer fire and rescue department is the backbone of many small communities. Break it up and you destroy the fabric of the community. A love of what they are doing, embracing the value of helping their neighbor, and the camaraderie and pride that comes from service, is the magnet that draws volunteers, generation after generation. It is a fragile balance to maintain, one that community leaders struggle to preserve, and unfortunately more and more are not succeeding.
Departmental cohesiveness is critical to this balance. Departments with a strong chief—one who understands the needs of the volunteers—one who can instill a sense of pride and community; who exudes the qualities and traits that can get men and women to run into burning buildings, is essential. Without this, members become disengaged. They drop out, by either not responding to calls, not attending mandatory training, or performing at a substandard level. And without a strong chief, recruiting and retaining new staff, even from individuals living in the community, becomes nearly impossible.
The true volunteer fire and rescue departments are at a crisis level. Recruiting and retaining new on-call volunteers is becoming harder and harder. More communities are being forced to move to a full-time, round the clock, professional staff, with few or no volunteers, at a cost to the communities that few can afford. At the same time, other towns continue to enjoy the benefits from having an engaged volunteer staff, where residents want to be part of these departments. The difference? In most cases it is the leadership. While no chief can stem societal changes, they are the glue that holds the department together and they are the engines that make it work. When these volunteers are committed to their mission and believe in their chief, engagement follows and that means those 2 AM calls are answered. With the right person at the top, most communities can rest a bit more peacefully.
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