A changing role for volunteer fire departments

Dec. 14, 2013 @ 02:28 PM

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is among Benjamin Franklin’s many famous quotes. This one appeared in the Feb. 4, 1735, edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Founding Father was writing about fire prevention, and noted that Boston had a “club or society of men” that were responsible for fighting fires, and that through practice and regular meetings, their firefighting skills improved.

Franklin advanced our nation in countless ways. He created many useful inventions, including bifocals and lightning rods. He published Poor Richard’s Almanack. He made numerous civic contributions, including organizing Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company after the above piece, which he wrote anonymously calling himself an “old citizen,” appeared.
Franklin’s involvement illustrates the long, storied history volunteer fire departments have had in our nation. As times have changed, so have the roles of the departments. In more recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for the largely rural departments to find enough volunteers to staff at necessary levels. As a result, some departments – including here in Durham – have gone to a hybrid model, using both paid and volunteer firefighters. In the five main volunteer fire departments in Durham, 62 percent of the 299 firefighters are paid.
At the request of County Manager Mike Ruffin, a Charlotte-based consultant took a look at the Redwood, Bahama, Lebanon, Parkwood and Bethesda volunteer fire departments, and recommended, based on the study’s findings, merging their tax districts. It suggested leaving whole the nonprofit groups that run four of them, maintaining them as separate entities and county contractors.
The consultants also suggested that the county should tighten its contracts with the departments and have clear performance standards and financial-reporting requirements.
The departments have been and remain important to the community. They have been a hub in rural communities, raising funds, hosting meetings and providing social opportunities while also serving a vital role in keeping residents safe.
As the region becomes more urban, though, the functions and demands of the departments also are changing.
It makes sense to begin the process of altering how the departments function and to create more uniformity in operations, with the county taking on a greater role.
It does have the potential, though, to create some odd situations – and perhaps even some that are contentious -- with the roles of the nonprofits being somewhat unclear.
The notion of the county taking over the volunteer fire departments fully is likely to be a politically charged issue. Many of the fire departments have had families serve in them for generations, and such a move by the county would alter the community.
Clearly, though, this is a big step in the direction of the county taking control. And it’s the right step.