Volunteer firefighting’s twilight

Jan. 04, 2014 @ 04:39 PM

Volunteer fire departments have had a long and storied history – and have made major contributions to communities’ safety and welfare – at least since The Roman Emperor Augustus is credited with instituting a corps of fire-fighting watchmen in 24 BC.

In this country, volunteer firefighting organizations date at least to the early 1700s. George Washington was a volunteer fire fighter – and reportedly bought a fire-fighting wagon for the Alexandria, Va., department.  Ben Franklin not only was a volunteer firefighter, he organized what probably was the first volunteer department. “Boss” Tweed – famous as a corrupt political boss in New York – got his start with a volunteer fire company.

The Durham Fire Department was born “Dec. 8, 1872, when the City purchased two twenty-foot ladders and a few citizens became volunteer firefighters,” according to the department’s history.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the city felt it had outgrown a volunteer department. The city formed a paid department March 1, 1909, less than two months after fire gutted City Hall and the Board of Aldermen concluded “effective service cannot be given by volunteers.”

Nonetheless, in many rural communities and smaller towns across America, including the communities ringing Durham even as the city grew rapidly, volunteer fire departments have continued to provide essential protection as well as camaraderie, service and community spirit.

But the signs are building rapidly that, sadly but perhaps inevitably, their time is passing. Even Parkwood, one of the largest volunteer departments in Durham and with an esteemed history, is facing difficult times.

County officials are worried about its finances and its firefighting, and have quietly asked the city’s fire department to routinely back up its calls. The county also has raised questions about the department’s cash flow, suspecting it may be diverting Firefights Relief Fund reserves to operating expenses.

The concerns over the department’s core responsibility – fighting fires – are especially troubling.  City Fire Chief Dan Curia, after witnessing Parkwood’s performance at a house fire in September, cited “a distinct lack of command presence at the scene and … only a rudimentary grasp of tactics at the command level.”

Lee Worsley, the deputy county manager who has been dealing with the Parkwood situation, recently told Parkwood officials that the county had learned of inadequate response to at least five calls, including the one Curia witnessed.

Parkwood’s difficulties follow the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department’s takeover by the county – at the department’s request – because of its shaky finances.

Changing lifestyles, busy lives, transience, changing attachment to community – the reasons volunteer firefighting companies face dwindling engagement are many. Many “volunteer” companies now are staffed partly or even largely by paid firefighters.

As Durham’s urbanization spreads over greater and greater portions of the county, the time is probably coming to consign volunteer firefighting to the nostalgic realm of barn-raisings, quilting bees and telephone party lines.

Residents deserve nothing less than a fully trained, professional managed and unified fire-fighting service.