It’s time to retire the words ‘career’ and ‘volunteer’ from fire service nomenclature

After a state referendum showed how the distinction was used to divide, I propose a new approach to labeling organizations and members


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It’s time to retire two words that we have used for decades to delineate firefighters – volunteer and career.

Why do we need them? NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications outlines training and certification for firefighters. That standard doesn’t distinguish between firefighters who staff a department 24/7 and those who gets alerted by a pager. No, there is one set of criteria so there should only be one word that defines that person – firefighter.

(And for those who might pipe up about standard distinctions like 1710 and 1720, keep in mind that those distinctions are more of a label for the department than the individual members.)

There is one set of criteria so there should only be one word that defines that person – firefighter.
There is one set of criteria so there should only be one word that defines that person – firefighter. (Photo/TheHilaryClark)

Recent Pennsylvania Referendum

We recently held primary elections here is my home state of Pennsylvania. One of the items for consideration by the electorate was a statewide referendum on Act 2020-91, making municipal fire and EMS departments eligible for low-interest loans.

As background, the Pennsylvania General Assembly established the Volunteer Companies Loan Fund on July 15, 1976, and with Act 208, this created the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program (VLAP). This program provides loans at a fixed 2% interest rate to volunteer fire, ambulance and rescue companies for the acquisition, rehabilitation or improvement of apparatus, facilities and equipment. Since its inception, the program has approved more than $489 million in loans for the commonwealth’s volunteer emergency services community. The loan fund is solvent, and there is a significant surplus every year. The current balance is $47 million, and all loans are paid back with interest.

In 2017, Pennsylvania established the SR 6 Commission, which was tasked with developing initiatives and recommendations to stabilize the delivery of fire and EMS services across the state. After months of meetings and public hearings, the Commission delivered 92 recommendations to the state legislature for consideration. One of those recommendations was to expand the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program to municipal fire and EMS agencies.

Words were used to divide

Even though the SR 6 Commission was made up of firefighters from all types of departments, the primary election campaign soon saw the emergence of a group that was staunchly against the referendum. The main argument was that the career departments were in cities that were poorly run and would borrow money from the fund and not be able to pay it back. The opponents hammered on the word “career” – an us vs. them ploy meant to divide.

Firefighters employed a comprehensive education program to help get the referendum approved. Nonetheless, the experience prompted many questions about how we label our members.

This is my career, too

Why do we have a different designation for career and volunteer firefighters? I have been doing this for almost 52 years now. How am I different from a 25-year-old who just went to work at a city fire department? I may not answer as many calls, but mine are just as complicated. This past month, I spent 48 hours doing training. I answered calls for structure fires, wildland fires, vehicle accidents, EMS assists and public service details. If this isn’t my “career” after 52 years and thousands of alarms, then I don’t know what is.

What if we only made the distinction between career and volunteer at the organization level? The departments could be described as staffed (today’s career), partially staffed (today’s combination) and on-call (today’s volunteer), but these three types of departments would simply have firefighters.

Part of the same family

We talk about being brothers and sisters. Maybe this is a way to bring us all into the same family. That way, when we must fight the next battle, we will be doing it under one banner. I know there are bigger problems out there so I’m not proposing this as so large movement or campaign, but maybe just a subtle change in everyday lingo.

What do you think?

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