Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Volunteer Fire Departments

How do you get your fire services?

Until fairly recently, fire services were quite stratified. In Ancient Rome, people could subscribe to firefighting services, and would be expected to pay up front in the event their homes caught fire[1. Some historians suggest these services may have, ah…made work for themselves, shall we say, especially since their owners often owned building companies and thus profited whether you paid the fire crews or not.]. Similar subscription services have existed in various societies throughout history. The idea of firefighting as a necessary community service is fairly recent and the first fully paid and funded fire department dates to the 1800s. For many people in urban areas, fire services are taken for granted; you might live pretty close to a fire station, you may have heard the trucks going by, your city funds fire services.

A fireman outside a structure fire, signaling to a person standing out of view of the camera.

This is increasingly under threat, thanks to economic austerities. Budgets for firefighting are being slashed across the United States and nowhere is this more evident than in volunteer fire departments, the lifeblood of rural communities. Our fire services are provided by the Fort Bragg Fire Department. My friends and neighbours. Many of whom are volunteers[1. Volunteers receive a small stipend for responding, but it in no way compensates them for their work.]. My electrician is a firefighter; one week I saw him at my house one day working on the electrical system, and the neighbours’ the next day, putting out a fire.

Firefighters, volunteer or paid, do not just put out fires. They provide medical aid. Are involved in search and rescue. Supervise vehicle extrications. Among emergency services personnel, they do some of the hardest, dirtiest, and most complex work. Volunteer fire departments are at a distinct disadvantage, because they lack the funding of urban departments. We cannot afford to hire highly trained fire personnel who have attended lengthy training programs and acquired specific skill sets. We cannot afford firefighter-paramedics (although some firefighters pursue EMT certification to help with medical aid and all our firefighters have basic medical aid training).

We have to provide the same services urban departments do, with fewer resources. FBVFD covers a very large service area with only two stations, one in town and one on Highway 20. Even traveling as fast as they safely can in fire trucks, they cannot respond to calls within a few minutes, as urban firefighters can. Once they arrive on scene, they don’t necessarily have access to hydrants. They have to bring in water and chemicals to fight fire, and are limited in terms of who is able to respond to the call and their training. Our fire department does a terrific job and provides excellent coverage.

A muster vehicle, a large vintage red fire truck maintained for public relations and interest, rather than being used as an active firefighting tool. It is driven by an officer in a parade.

That comes at a cost. As a member of the community, I contribute to the volunteer fire department; I may not attend their annual ball but I do send donations, and I try to make a point of supporting fire department endeavors. Because it’s important. It may never be my house or business, but it will be someone’s, it might be in my neighbourhood, it might be a friend or family member. I want the fire department to be able to respond to medical aid calls when tourists fall off the cliffs, when businesses are burning, when there’s a car accident and someone needs to be safely removed and packaged for transport to Santa Rosa[2. Access to medical services and level of medical care is a planned post in this series.].

How does your fire department buy their fire trucks? Uniforms? Boots? Hoses? Safety gear? My fire department holds chicken dinners. Does your fire department do that? Does your fire department have to hold bake sales to make sure it can afford to run at current levels?

Firefighting costs money. A lot of money. There’s the initial investment in training, which requires facilities, instructors, and equipment. There’s maintaining a fire station. There’s maintaining fire apparatus, including ladders, trucks, tankers. There’s buying first aid and paramedic supplies. Making sure everyone has a functioning pager and that the fire siren works[3. In Mendocino, the fire department still relies heavily on the old fashioned siren the tourists always complain about, because pagers do not always work, but people in range will hear the siren.]. Providing fire services is expensive, and many communities have decided that it is an important priority.

Not just for public safety and the preservation of property. But because it is intrinsically important. I like the fact that I live in a community where I will receive aid and assistance in an emergency. I like that the fire department focuses on putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, period. The class, race, creed, or gender of the person or people involved does not matter; the fire department will extricate anyone from a badly damaged car, will assist anyone with a burning home. It is one of the few egalitarian things in this society. What happens next; whether people can replace the car, the home, pay the medical bills, this is determined on the basis of class, but the first response?

The first response is your friends and neighbours, showing up to get the situation under control and make you safe. I am connected to the fire department because it is heavily staffed with volunteers, because there are members of my community who agree with me that fire services are important and want to make sure they are provided. Want to provide them. This is a factor of rural communities I will be talking about a lot more in coming months; connections, assistance, networks within communities, but I thought fire services would be a good place to start.

If you live in an urban area, have you ever been inside the closest firehouse? Do you know the firefighting personnel? How fast will they come in a fire? How new is their gear? Do they have access to equipment like thermal scanners for finding people in burning buildings? How much money do your firefighters make? Are your fire services threatened by service cuts? Did you know that lack of access to health care in the United States has made medical aid calls one of the leading types of calls members of fire stations encounter?