Challenges face first responders

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In the future, closer cooperation can help preserve services.

BACK IN THE DAY, pretty much, all firefighters were volunteers - come a-running and grab a bucket.

Though there's some argument, the first professional full-time fire department generally is thought to have been organized in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1850s. None other than Benjamin Franklin is credited with organizing the first American volunteer fire department, in 1736 at Philadelphia.

As of 2014, the number of firefighters in the United States is placed at 1,134,400 spread across 27,198 departments. Nearly three out of four of those people are volunteers or what is known as paid-on-call personnel.

Generally, it works this way. The bigger cities - around here that's Rockford, Beloit and Janesville - have paid professional full-time firefighting and emergency medical staffs. The rest of the region is covered by several departments that may have a handful of full-time paid leaders, but rely mostly on volunteer and on-call emergency responders.

THE PROBLEM IS, as reported last week in a Beloit Daily News story by reporter Austin Montgomery, more and more of these departments are experiencing growing difficulty recruiting the people they need.

To clarify, that is not some unique problem impacting local departments because of any deficiencies like inferior equipment or bad working conditions. This is a trend occurring all across the United States.

South Beloit Fire Chief Mike Davenport explained the situation well.

"We just don't get the people coming in off the street wanting to basically give up their spare time to be firefighters and it's very difficult to do that because they have to meet the same training standards as a career, full-time firefighter does. There's a lot of time and commitment involved in that."

Indeed there is, and it's also not unusual for these departments to have some of their best trained and most committed individuals use the training as a stepping stone toward getting on with one of the full-time career agencies. Those urban agencies have good pay and great benefits, making it even harder for the volunteer departments to hold onto top firefighters and paramedics.

TO THEIR CREDIT, departments in South Beloit, Rockton and Harlem Roscoe are joining together with a training academy approach. The cooperative plan is to increase the pool of volunteers and improve training. It's a good idea.

Perhaps other volunteer on-call departments in the region may wish to inquire about how they could get involved and benefit as well.

Who knows? Down the road it may even make sense to consider talks about further ways to cooperate, or even consolidate. There could be advantages of scale when it comes to command, staffing, training and equipment acquisition.

Here's how serious this is: If the day comes when the smaller departments are unable to keep up with staffing needs by relying on a steady stream of volunteer recruits, the next step is moving toward a career professional organization. Fire and emergency medical service must be provided. It's not like the response to an emergency can be put off.

NONE OF THIS, by the way, is meant to diminish not only the commitment but also the bravery of all those serving with on-call departments. Most of them work other jobs and do their service in their spare time. They train hard in order to be there when you may need it most.

Like their career brothers and sisters, they are heroes.

Rather, it is our intent to praise the three departments for looking at ways to cooperatively meet the needs of today and tomorrow.

We hope this is a first step toward further cooperation, because sound first-response coverage in the future will not necessarily depend on the same borders and organizing approaches recognized today.

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