It is not us vs. them, it is us all together
I have been a career firefighter for over 34 years; I have also been a volunteer for over 34. I was hired in one of the largest combination systems in the country. Before we go any further let me explain what a combination system is. A combination fire department system is a system that consists of career and volunteers who work and volunteer in the same system, ride the same apparatus and work together to serve the citizen in their county.
I started volunteering at the age of 12. I was a junior associate member in a fire department in a Washington DC suburb. The department was in a county that was a combination system. My grandfather and dad were long time members of this department, but this department was not in my hometown. My local department did not have a junior program. My duties were mostly cleaning the station and learning what the fire department was and the job firefighters do. The station had career people as well as volunteers who worked together to answer alarms. I never witnessed any animosity towards each other. I saw the men and women jump on the fire engines and speed down the road to answer whatever alarm was dispatched.
When I turned 16, I was able to join my local fire department. This department housed career and volunteers together and like my former department both entities worked together to answer calls and serve the citizens. I loved being a firefighter and I knew from the age of 12, I wanted to make it my career. I am a 3rd generation firefighter so it was the “family business” and I longed for the day I turned 18 so I could apply to be a career firefighter.
I graduated high school at the age of 17; I was still too young to apply to be a career firefighter. I did what most high school graduates do; I went to college and worked part time. The day I turned 18 I applied to be a career firefighter in my county. I took the civil service exam and all the requirements to be hired. It took 11 months, but I finally received the call I dreamed of. In October of 1987, I became a career firefighter and was assigned to the Silver Spring fire department Station 1 affectedly known as One Engine. I was accepted by my shift and had many mentors who showed me the ins and outs of the job. Unfortunately, some on other shifts did not approve of me being a volunteer. This was the first time I was subjected to negative career volunteer relationships.
Let me give a little background of the system in Montgomery County. Before the fire service transitioned into a county system, the individual corporations hired the career firefighter. This means that the career firefighter worked for the volunteers. Some stations abused (for lack of better words) the career folks. I heard stories of the volunteer corporations making the career people wash and paint rocks, wax soda machines and clean up after the volunteers. This was not the case in all the stations. My volunteer station as well as the station I worked at did not subject the career people to these useless tasks. I do understand the animosity towards some volunteers, but to lump all volunteers into one group it not fair and will lead to a rift between the career and the volunteers.
In 1991, I resigned from my volunteer fire department because I bought a house in a neighboring county. I was unable to keep up with requirements as a volunteer living farther away, so I joined the local fire station in my new hometown. You see I enjoyed the job, be it as a career and a volunteer. Now that I was a little older, I started to see the rift between the career and the volunteers. I would hear comments like “volunteers take jobs away from us” or “your hobby takes money away from my family” I never felt that I was doing either. There were volunteers at my career station and I always welcomed them to ride. To be fair I heard bitterness toward the career people from the volunteers as well. Some volunteers leaders constantly opposed any moves the career people wanted, there never seemed to be a reason for this other than to create friction. Some volunteer leaders would go out of their way to find issues and blow those issue out of proportion to make themselves look better. I could see that there was a widening rift between the career and the volunteers. It was becoming an “us vs. them” environment.
I saw it come to a head when the local union in the county where I volunteered targeted the volunteers who were career in other counties and in DC. The local union sent a letter to the respected unions where all the volunteers worked. The letter stated that because they were union members and volunteered they violated the IAFF rules. They demanded that the local unions have the volunteers quit volunteering or be thrown out of the local. The tactic did not work. Understand this was not just a career only issue, I know that there were some career firefighter who volunteered in other counties who treated the career people harshly. This problem fueled the fire of disdain towards volunteers. The relationship between both parties continued to deteriorate. Both groups started to lose sight of the mission. Volunteers felt that the career people do not need the raises they were bargaining for. I would hear the union call for more manpower on the apparatus, ignoring that volunteers were riding the apparatus making up extra staffing. Some apparatus would hit the street with 5 or 6 firefighters. It does not matter what uniform you wear, as long as the people are trained to do the job.
As the years went by the unions in the Mid- Atlantic area started to concentrate on their members and their needs. The focus was on contract negations, training, firefighter safety and mental well-being. The volunteer ranks started to shrink. It was becoming harder to recruit and retain volunteer. Volunteers realized they needed the career personnel to ensure staffed apparatus hit the street. Both parties began to focus on the mission and how to accomplish it. It did not matter what your pay status was, or what uniform you wore. Relationships started to heal.
Unfortunately, the “us vs. them” mentality still exists. I still see it. Both parties must examine why they are in the fire service. A true examination will reveal the answer. Both are here to serve. Pay status should not come into play. Both want to get the apparatus out the door to answer the call. When either party tells lies and half stories to make themselves look as if they have to moral high ground, does nothing but damage relationships and sours the view of the fire service in the eyes of the public. We must find common ground to come together. The fire service is one of the most trusted and revered entity in the country. Either party who damages that respect does not damage the individual, but the whole service. In combination systems, unions must reach out to the volunteers to find the common ground. Volunteers must lose the conspiracy theories about the career people and come together to get the apparatus out the door, ensure quality training and serve the public.
In a combination system, we cannot do it alone; we need each other to make the system work. Work together and train together. Give the public what they deserve. Remember alone we are weak, but together we are strong.