Uncontrolled fires remain one of the most terrifying disasters in the world. As much as humans rely on fire for modern conveniences, we have an innate, animal fear of flame.
Thus, firefighters have become supremely venerated figures—indisputable heroes in bright yellow rushing toward the burning buildings and forests while everyone else rushes away.
It is a shame, then, that no one wants to be a firefighter anymore.
The Rise and Fall
Fire has always been a deadly threat to humankind, and thus, firefighters have been integral members of society for millennia. As far back as 24 BCE, Roman emperor Augustus is credited with forming a group of firefighters called vigiles, who remained ready to douse flames whenever they arose.
Later, throughout Europe, neighborhoods instituted their own watches which guarded against fire, theft and other disasters. In England, firefighting became a private venture, with insurance companies offering to stifle fires for a hefty fee. Fortunately, people did not stand for such treatment for long.
Firefighting in U.S. cities began with Benjamin Franklin, who gathered together a group of volunteers in Philadelphia to form the nation’s first fire station, the Union Fire Company. Even so, there were no paid firefighters in America until 1850. Yet, after full-time firefighters were established, fires raged on, often because disputes over territory caused brigades to fight one another instead of the engulfing flames.
Eventually, large cities became more adept at drawing boundaries between brigades’ jurisdictions, and firefighters became elevated to heroic status.
Firefighters gained more responsibilities than simply quelling flames; most now participate in various forms of rescue and clean-up, and many must have some experience with emergency medical aid. The implicit value of firefighters has only become more obvious in recent decades, when natural and unnatural disasters have wreaked havoc on America’s shores.
Volunteer and career firefighters alike continue to justly receive praise for their fearless work during 9/11 and other terrorist threats, and most Americans look forward to equal protection and assistance in the future—but few are willing to volunteer for the job, which puts everyone at risk.
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The Causes and Solutions
Unfortunately, most towns and cities in the U.S. still rely on volunteer brigades similar to Benjamin Franklin’s, and because fewer and fewer volunteer firefighters sign up for the job every year (numbers have dropped roughly 11 percent since the mid-‘80s), these municipalities are becoming ever more vulnerable to disaster. Arguments abound for the reasons behind the sudden drop in enrollment.
One strong explanation might be the aging population and the increasing demands of other careers. The baby boomers are getting on in years; most are simply not fit enough to conform to the rigorous standards of firefighting.
Meanwhile, generation X and millennials are overwhelmed by the pressure to have families and succeed in the workplace, and often there is no spare time to devote to upright, heroic pursuits.
Another problem is the lack of fires around modern America. Public education regarding fire safety has obviously been effective, as the number of fire-related calls has dropped more than 3.6 million since the mid-‘80s.
Only about 5 percent of fire station calls are due to rampant flames; more often, people require medical aid, rescue or hazardous material clean-up. These tasks are hard work for barely trained volunteers. Thus, the only solution to the dwindling volunteer numbers is training more full-time firefighters.
Volunteer or Career
Volunteer firefighters must endure at least 110 hours of training to ensure they are in peak physical condition and prepared to face the hazards of the job. Meanwhile, a professional firefighter must earn a bachelor’s degree in fire science, which informs him or her of causes of fire, fire’s typical path, arson laws, firefighting ethics and more.
Then, firefighters must pass a number of written and physical exams that determine their fitness. Ultimately, paid firefighters are much better prepared for their positions, and they should be much more valued in their communities.
Still, several cities continue to seek out volunteer firefighters—and for good financial reasons. Utilizing a volunteer force has saved the nation’s local governments nearly $139.8 billion annually. However, keeping a populace safe has never come cheap.
Cities must begin hiring firefighters at worthwhile salaries, as more firefighters become better equipped to service their communities in every way, from medical assistance to pulling survivors from building rubble.