In a budget crunch, calling in the volunteers

By Cate Long
September 30, 2013

Fiscally stricken Woonsocket, Rhode Island recently informed its firefighters union that it would be replacing 15 vacancies in the fire department with volunteer firefighters. The Woonsocket Call reported:

The Woonsocket Fire Department would become the only urban fire district in the state to employ on-call volunteers under a cost-cutting edict issued this week by the Budget Commission – under the threat of a lawsuit from the firefighters union.

The firefighters won’t allow this to happen if they can help it. It is common for small communities of less than 10,000 people to use volunteer fire fighters. I have never heard of a mixed department, though some might exist. Maybe this precedent should be established as debt-burdened cities struggle to provide essential services.

Woonsocket is in dire financial shape. After several years of deficits, the state placed the city under a Budget Commission that was established and overseen by the director of revenue. The commission includes state and city-appointed designees. From The Call again:

‘The commission does not have the authority to break contracts,’ said [Capt. Michael Morin, president of the IAFF]. ‘They can’t just fill vacant positions with on-call volunteers.’

Aside from the legalities of using on-call personnel, Morin says the practice raises legitimate issues of safety for the public and firefighters. He said there is no plan in place to prevent inexperience or inadequate training of volunteers from putting other firefighters or the general public at risk.

Morin called it ‘a draconian change’ in the operations of the Fire Department and lambasted the officials pushing it as ‘people that know nothing about public safety.’

‘I’m opposed to this,’ said Acting Fire Chief Tim Walsh. ‘The city of Woonsocket needs to have trained firefighters.’

There is no question that professionally trained firefighters are more experienced than volunteers, but data from the National Fire Protection Association shows that volunteers do not experience injuries at significantly higher rates than professional firefighters and in some categories have lower levels of injuries (chart above). But fire departments do much more now than fight fires. From the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch:

Many modern fire departments spend a decreasing amount of overall activity in fighting fires. Instead, fire fighters typically respond to all kinds of emergencies. For example, in the U.S. approximately 70 percent of all emergency medical calls are handled by the fire service.

Squeezing the pay, benefits and retirement funds of public safety officers is becoming widespread in areas that are dealing with municipal budget problems. Another approach could be to look at selectively using volunteers to augment the paid force. Cities need every possible tool to balance their budgets. We’ll keep an eye on Woonsocket.

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